Pentateuch

Creation Stories


Genesis 1:1-5 (NLT)


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

And evening passed and morning came, marking the first day.

Genesis 2:4-9 (NLT)

This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, neither wild plants nor grains were growing on the earth. For the Lord God had not yet sent rain to water the earth, and there were no people to cultivate the soil. Instead, springs came up from the ground and watered all the land. Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. The Lord God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground—trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


“In the beginning.” These are, of course, the opening words of the Great Story we celebrate in our lives, the story in which we participate whenever we gather for worship.

It is the Great Story, the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, that explains who God is, why God matters, and how God relates to his creation, particularly people. We discover that people are central to the Great Story, too—in fact, we matter so much, we are loved so much, that God does some very strange things to maintain the relationship.

Ultimately in the Great Story, there is God in flesh, and a cross, and resurrection. But today, we’re going to re-introduce ourselves to the creation stories, those first two chapters of the Holy Bible that set the tone for everything to come.

Being Biblical

I am going to be as biblical as I can be today; by that, I mean I am going to let the story as it is told shape what I say as much as possible. (God help me, and God forgive me where I fail in this area.) Traditionally, one of the great things about being Methodist is that we let the Bible guide us, trusting that it is God’s inspired word, communicating truths that transcend cultural biases.

That does not mean you will hear what some call a fundamentalist or literalist presentation of the creation stories’ highlights from me. As I understand those explanations of the creation stories, they at times can contradict the purposes of Genesis 1 and 2. Fundamentalists and literalists have been known to take lyrical tellings of who God is and how God relates to humans and reduce them to strange science, missing their larger points.

Ultimately, I want to get to the deeper truths being communicated at the opening of this sacred, wonderful Great Story. For there are great truths, the kind of truths around which we should build our lives. When I say I believe Scripture is true, I’m talking about a mystical kind of truth that underpins and holds together the very cosmos.

The Stories

There are two creation stories before us in Genesis. Most scholars agree the first one runs from Genesis 1:1 through the first statement in Genesis 2:4, where we hear the concluding statement, “This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.” The second story then begins, “When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …”.

There are, of course, similarities between the two stories. In both cases, we detect the presence of the Holy Spirit, one of three biblical manifestations or persons of God. In the first creation story, God’s Spirit hovers over a dark, watery, formless earth. In the second story, the Spirit is present as God’s breath, entering the human formed from the ground to create life.

There also are significant textual differences between the two stories, including the name used for the Creator. In the first account, God is, in Hebrew, simply ʼElohim, while in the second account we see “Lord God,” YHWH ʼElohim, the addition being the “I Am Who I Am” secret name of God revealed to Moses in the story found in Exodus 3.

The basic purpose of the first creation story seems pretty clear. We see God standing outside all things. God is complete. God is not dependent in any way on creation. Why does God create? It would appear that creativity simply is a key part of God’s character. As God sees things are “good,” he experiences the satisfaction a human writer, painter or sculptor might feel.

We also see how creation is made to be responsive to God. Pay careful attention to the shift in language at Genesis 1:11-12. With God’s power, the land begins to participate in the process of creation, sprouting and producing seed-bearing plants which then beget more life.

The pattern is repeated as animals are created. God gets everything rolling and creation joyfully imitates. Ultimately, humans are made in God’s image, ruling in miniature on behalf of the one who made all things.

I carry this truth away: I am just one of billions of humans who have existed, but I am important. You are important. As responsive bearers of God-given life, made in his image, we have so much potential! Treasure the life you’ve been given.

Yes, the story goes on in chapter 3, and sin introduces horrible encumbrances to weigh us down. But remember that potential, and remember the powerful truth that Christ came to redeem us from sin. Through Christ, we are re-created, restored to that potential.

Deep Love

The second creation story accomplishes another important task. It is, in a way, God’s valentine to us, as he says, “See how much I love you?”

Here, the Lord God is much more personal and relatable, shaping the first human from sod and blowing life into his nostrils. He then carves out a special place in creation, a holy garden where the man can learn pleasurable, fulfilling work alongside his creator. He also is called to learn joyous obedience by following one simple rule: Don’t eat from that tree.

There is to be no sadness or sense of isolation in this place called Eden. We see this as the Lord God fashions animals, and then finally a woman, for the man. We are left with a picture of perfection, man and woman together, relating to one another and God in idyllic peace.

Again, sin mars the picture as the Great Story progresses. But thanks to the work of Christ, we can look at one another, and look to God, and say, “We are loved!” And never forget that the Great Story, the whole story of the Bible, returns us to this Paradise, this perfection of relationships.

It is all true. These stories are not science or history as modern people understand these two fields of study, but these stories are true.

Let these creation stories lead you into the eternal story lived with God.

Advertisements

God Is Faithful

Romans 3:1-8 (NLT)

Then what’s the advantage of being a Jew? Is there any value in the ceremony of circumcision? Yes, there are great benefits! First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the whole revelation of God.

True, some of them were unfaithful; but just because they were unfaithful, does that mean God will be unfaithful? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true. As the Scriptures say about him,

“You will be proved right in what you say,
   and you will win your case in court.”


“But,” some might say, “our sinfulness serves a good purpose, for it helps people see how righteous God is. Isn’t it unfair, then, for him to punish us?” (This is merely a human point of view.) Of course not! If God were not entirely fair, how would he be qualified to judge the world? “But,” someone might still argue, “how can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights his truthfulness and brings him more glory?” And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, “The more we sin, the better it is!” Those who say such things deserve to be condemned.


Paul continues to speak about the Jews. They are a special people, he tells us, chosen by God to be the revealers of his true nature. God has made many promises to them as a people, and those promises will be fulfilled.

For several centuries, people calling themselves Christians have conveniently forgotten this truth about the Jews’ special place in God’s great plan. These people have dared to go so far as to persecute and kill Jews. Their faulty logic and failure to heed Scripture don’t need rehashing here.

As Methodists, our biblically rooted first rule for living, “Do no harm,” should tell us all we need to know about persecution. We don’t persecute others, regardless of their beliefs. We don’t persecute Jews, we don’t persecute Muslims, we don’t persecute Hindus, we don’t persecute anyone. When in a part of the world blessed with freedom, we preach and teach biblical truths to anyone who will listen, but we live peaceably with others regardless of how they receive that preaching and teaching.

As Paul discusses the special role of the Jews, he also reveals something about God’s nature that’s worth focusing on today.

We of course know we are supposed to be faithful to God, to be true to God. But lo and behold, it’s a two-way street, one God drove down first! God remains faithful to the Jews, even though many have turned away from him. And in revealing himself in full through Jesus, who is Messiah first to the Jews and then to the world, God showed his faithfulness to all of humanity.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that God’s faithfulness toward us is the driving force behind history. If God were not faithful toward his creation, there would be no history.

We have no reason to expect such positive treatment from our creator. There are a lot of indications in the Bible that God feels what we would call “pain” when humans sin.

Genesis 6:5-8, the beginning of the Great Flood story, is a good example:

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth. Yes, and I will destroy every living thing—all the people, the large animals, the small animals that scurry along the ground, and even the birds of the sky. I am sorry I ever made them.” But Noah found favor with the Lord.

In the Great Flood story, death and chaos did follow. The surprising part is it was not complete. God left an escape clause for humanity, a way to continue. Noah found favor with the Lord.

It’s not that Noah was perfect or sinless. As best we can tell, he simply craved a relationship with God. He wanted to be right with God, to be aligned with God. And for God, that was enough to keep trying to heal that broken relationship with humanity, despite our sinful nature causing him pain.

Apparently, the merest turning of our eyes toward God is enough to warrant a response. God is holy; that is, his very being defines what is right and what is wrong, and he cannot tolerate sin forever. God also is love, however, and the loving nature of God makes him very patient. God chooses to keep loving us despite our sins.

This understanding of God’s ongoing faithfulness takes us to the core of Christianity, to that John 3:16 truth of what God is doing. God loves his creation so much that he took on flesh and lived among us. Being in pain already because of our sin, God went ahead and made his pain real in our world, dying on the cross for our sins.

He loves us so much he made reunion with him easy. Just believe in the work he has done.

A lot of people struggle with the idea of God being so faithful toward us that he actually pursues us. In fact, the ease with which salvation is received may be one of the biggest hurdles some people have to overcome to be able to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior.

A relationship with God is something to be earned, a lot of people think, particularly if they have striven for success in other areas. Don’t we first have to clean up our act?

No, we don’t. It’s that simple. God is so faithful in the promises he has made through time—to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses and the Israelites, to the Israelites again through the prophets, and ultimately to all of us through Jesus Christ—that he is just waiting on us to let him fulfill them.

Do you want a relationship with God? Just say yes. There’s no asterisk here, no fine print on a back page of a contract. Just say yes.

We don’t want to stop there, of course. God has also promised restoration, a driving out and destruction of sin. We can be the people God intended us to be. Don’t forget to say “yes” to that offer, too.

Sometimes, this process of spiritual growth does take time. It’s hard to lay down old habits and walk away from the comfortable mud holes where we’ve learned to wallow. We have to say yes to God’s offer of restoration on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

The offers of salvation and restoration are always before us. Why? Because God is faithful first. Our faith in him by comparison is a tiny, almost token response, but it is enough to gain us the eternal life we are continually offered.

 

Simple Act of Faith

In this Lenten season, we’ll call this “Back to Basics Day.” Let’s begin by considering exactly what Abram (later to be called Abraham) gave up when he listened to God and moved toward an unspecified land.

This initial call in Genesis 12:1-4 is written in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but the risk must have seemed huge for an aging man. He had property and people around him, including slaves, the mark of a comfortable, wealthy man. We don’t know how long Abram had been in Haran—we only know his father Terah had moved the family from far-away Ur some time earlier—but as the family had been able to grow their wealth while there, we can assume life in Haran had been good to them.

Now Abram was to pack his family and possessions and make a journey that ultimately would prove to be more than 500 miles, about the same distance as the drive from Kingsport, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla. Except they had no cars. For them, it was a dangerous month-long one-way trip, assuming the animals in their caravan were in good shape. A return visit to Haran or the true family homeplace, Ur, might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps when someone needed a bride of proper bloodlines.

And yet, Abram went, without question, without comment. He would have questions later, but not in this initial act of faith, this huge, trusting leap toward God.

It’s easy to get caught up in what Abram did rather than focusing on the importance of what was simply in his heart. The Apostle Paul uses Abram in the fourth chapter of Romans to illustrate that it’s the trust that saves us, not any work we do. When God sees we trust him, he goes ahead and calls us righteous, even though we don’t deserve it. Paul made clear he was talking about the God we know best through Jesus Christ, the one who made all things and then restored all things to holiness despite sin.

All we have to do is believe the God who promised all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram ultimately walked among us as Jesus Christ, working great mysteries on the cross so we do not have to die forever. I know, I just leaped across hundreds of pages of Scripture to make that connection, but it’s the connection the Bible, Old and New Testaments, strives to make. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that initial, broad promise offered to Abram, a promise grand enough to set a very comfortable man and his people to packing.

So, we’re invited to a simple act of faith. But at the same time, we’re also called to remember that it’s so simple it can be confusing, particularly for the uninitiated. When we’ve turned away from God and are caught up in sin, we feel like we’re trapped in that Harry Potter hedge maze, the one where the turns and dead-ends seem endless and the roots and branches grab at us. We have to figure the maze out, right? To survive, we have to beat back what entangles us, right?

Wrong. All we really have to do is look up and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you can pluck me out of this.”

In the third chapter of John’s gospel, we see the Pharisee Nicodemus desperately wanting to follow Jesus, but at the same time struggling in his rigid, legalistic mind with how to do so. Accept what is from above, Jesus told him. Trust God. Trust God’s love for his creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” Jesus said. And then came the real kicker, particularly for a legalist striving to make himself righteous: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What, God doesn’t seek to punish us first? I don’t have to clean up my act to accept God’s gift of salvation?

We have Nicodemus types around us, perhaps even among us. They want to make that first step toward God much more difficult than it is, trying to resolve personal angst and the global problem of evil in one fell swoop. Often, they expect a requirement to crawl at least halfway back toward the one they’ve offended before being accepted.

As Christians, our job is to keep simple what can be misunderstood as complicated. The God of Abraham, the God who walked among us and died for our sins, loves us. He’s been reaching down to humanity for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Sure, once we accept God’s offer, there’s more to do. It’s only natural that we want a developing, continuing relationship with the one who gives us eternal life in place of death. We pray, we study, we joyfully respond to his simple requests, the first being, “Go and tell others.”

That initial act of accepting God’s outstretched hand remains simple, however.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Freedom from Fear

If God is for us, who can be against us?

The line is from Romans 8:31, but it also serves well as the lesson from today’s story in Exodus 14:10-31.

In revealing his true power to both his chosen people, the Israelites, and to the greatest power on earth, Egypt, God arranged for the Israelites to find themselves trapped between the Red Sea and an advancing Egyptian army.

Yes, Pharaoh had already suffered under the mighty hand of Yahweh in the form of plagues, including the death of all the firstborn males in Egypt, human and animal—Israelites exempted, of course. Yes, God was visibly present with the Israelites, in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But still, the Israelites found Pharaoh’s approaching army terrifying.

Pharaoh led his pursuit with 600 chariots, wheeled terrors capable of defeating even well-trained, fully equipped phalanxes of soldiers. Drawn by massive horses, each chariot typically carried a driver and an archer with an arsenal of arrows and spears. In battle, they functioned the way tanks might be used today. The 600 carried Pharaoh’s elite charioteers, what we would call Special Forces; the rest of the Egyptian army was close behind.

But remember: If God is for us, who can be against us?

The Israelites cried out to Moses in terror, saying he had brought them into the desert to die. Despite the evidence of God they had seen, were seeing, and were about to see, they would continue to complain like this for years; it’s astonishing God put up with them. Moses told them, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

If we’ve spent much time in church, hearing basic Bible stories in Sunday school, we know what happened next. God’s visible presence moved to separate the army from the Israelites, and then God told Moses what to do as a prelude to God showing his power in parting the Red Sea. “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.”

I’ve wondered what Moses felt as he did this. Could he feel God’s Spirit rush through him? Did he sense the power it took to drive billions of gallons of water apart?

The Israelites crossed safely. Pharaoh and his army pursued but died, the water crashing down on them, destroying the mightiest military force humanity had to offer.

If God is for us, who can be against us?

Yes, it’s a lesson from an Old Testament story. But it’s also a New Testament Bible verse for a reason. As people who believe God is for us, we are called to let go of fear, the same lesson the Israelites were supposed to learn.

We know that most of all, God has been for us by living and working in Jesus to eliminate all our reasons for fear. Jesus picked up on the Old Testament theme by saying repeatedly in his teachings, “Fear not. Fear not.”

I’m like most people in that I’ve carried a lot of fear around in my life. I’ve had childhood fears. I’ve had adult fears. For me, both have seemed to aggravate me the most in the middle of the night, when worry seems to be at its strongest.

I’m probably typical that most of my fear is of the future, of what might be. But that doesn’t make sense, not if we think about it. Through Jesus Christ, God already has captured the future. God is in the future, ahead of us, waiting on us.

We may have to go through some rough patches to get there, but because we believe in Christ, we know our future ultimately is holy and eternal. A good word to describe it might be “blissful.”

When we learn to live into this belief, wonderful things begin to happen. Fear is replaced not only by courage, but by a kind of joyous courage, a willingness to abandon this world’s worries and pursue God in full. We not only stop fearing the future, we begin living in its bliss now.

John Wesley, the 18th-century founder of the Methodist movement, had great expectations regarding what freedom from fear means for the world.

“Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

That is what we seek, isn’t it? The end of fear forever, and eternal union with God.

***

Next week, I’ll detail how we’re freed from death, and we’ll explore further what it means to live as a people who already have eternity.

Freedom to Speak

Exodus 6:28-7:6

I’ve spent a lot of time the last year encouraging church members to rediscover the lost art—and I should also say, the joy—of telling others about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Yes, I mean evangelism, where we do what God tells believers to do, witnessing to the Christian truths we claim to hold so dear. Somehow, it has become a frightening concept to many otherwise committed Christians, a strange development in a nation where we supposedly are free to say what we think.

When someone is brave enough to complain after I’ve asserted the importance of evangelism, I usually hear something like, “I’m just not cut out to do that.” By this, they mean they’re too shy, or not biblically learned enough, or not quick enough when faced with questions, or, frankly, afraid of being labeled as some kind of religious nut.

Well, of course you aren’t cut out to evangelize. Neither am I; when it comes right down to it, none of us in our sin-tainted, time-bound lives is really equipped to show people the way to a holy, eternal God. Blessedly, God does the real work. As children of God, we’re just being told to help, the way our parents might have told us as children to hold something while they did the real work of building and repairing.

In doing so, we get to glimpse how God works, and we begin to grow into the image of God we were created to be.

Our Exodus text today is a good example of what I’m talking about. The story is pre-Christian, of course, but God is working through Moses and Aaron to declare his power over all creation, including Pharaoh and mighty Egypt.

Moses’ concern is straightforward. He does not speak well, complaining in a literal rendition of the Hebrew that he has “uncircumcised lips,” possibly a reference to a physical or psychological speech impediment. In other words, he’s saying he’s not cut out for the job. It’s the second time he’s made the complaint to God.

God’s answer is twofold: I’ll give you help, in the form of your brother Aaron, and I’ll make you “like God to Pharaoh.” God was saying his power and majesty would shine through Moses despite his human frailties.

It is much the same for us today as followers of Christ. If we will stop complaining of our human frailties and fears and trust God, his power and majesty will shine through us as we tell what Christ has done to rescue us from the power of sin.

When this understanding of evangelism takes hold in a church, mighty things begin to happen. One example is not far from Cassidy UMC, at Salem UMC, just four miles away.

Will Shewey, Salem’s pastor, said worship attendance there has grown from about 90 people four years ago to 208 halfway into 2013. Now, growth in worship attendance can happen in a lot of ways. For example, a large number of Christians may simply transfer into a church because they’ve moved into nearby developing neighborhoods or left a church in the area they didn’t like.

Salem’s growth seems to be genuinely evangelism-driven, however. In the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost this year, 26 people joined Salem UMC after declaring their faith in Jesus Christ and undergoing baptism. It’s a pattern Salem has seen repeatedly in the last four years.

Pastor Will passed along the names of two lay people at Salem who have been very active in bringing others to Christ.

Linda Archer has connected with many young adults through a non-traditional Wednesday night Bible study, one inspired by questions her nieces first brought her. The key, she said, is having a heart for all types of people, regardless of what they look like or what their current mode of dress or lifestyle may be.

“I don’t have any manuals to use,” she said. These young adults have questions, and Linda tries to find them biblically grounded answers. She said it’s also important to invite young adults in personal, specific ways to get involved in the ministry of the church—they want to explore faith by living it.

“To make disciples of Christ, number 1, they’ve got to be comfortable with you,” Linda said. “The Lord can do the rest.”

Judy Kregar reaches others with the message of Christ by paying attention to the people around her, particularly at work or in public. “A lot of them look lost, like they need someone to talk to,” she said.

By doing so, she said, she’s helped bring nine people to baptism in the last six months.

Raised Roman Catholic and now 65 years old, Judy said she’s learned to share her faith in just the last couple of years, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide her.

“Sometimes there’s just something that tells us we need to talk to that person, and we need to listen,” she said.

Both my reading of the Bible and my conversations with the people at Salem UMC tell me the path to a new Great Awakening in our communities is not complicated. It doesn’t require elaborate planning or committee oversight.

All that’s really needed is a faithful response from people who already have experienced the love of God, and are willing to take the story of that love to people desperate for answers.

May Such Be Done to Me

Genesis 15:1-21

Father Abraham—at this point in the story, simply Abram—is remembered as the archetype of the faithful man. It’s good to know, however, that even our best examples have moments of doubt and insecurity.

It’s also good to know just how far God is willing to go to reassure the faithful when they waver.

A Starry Promise

Abram already had heard powerful promises from God and had seen God work in mighty ways. But like so many of us, Abram seems to have allowed his doubts to creep up on him in the night.

Specifically, God had promised Abram numerous descendants, despite the advanced ages he and his wife had reached without having children. So God led Abram into a vision, one that begins with the words, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

With that powerful assurance, Abram felt secure enough to pour out his confusion and fear to God. Abram complained a household slave seemed to be his only possible human heir. Abram still had not held a son of his own despite following God’s lead in every way.

Rather than chastising Abram for wavering, God restated his promise in a powerfully visual way. Leading Abram out into the desert night, God showed Abram a clear sky studded with twinkling points of light, the Milky Way ribbon twisting among them. God told the fearful man, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”

It was enough, we are told. Abram believed. God saw Abram as righteous because of his renewed faith. We see that God doesn’t condemn our wavering minds if we’re willing to take our doubts to him.

That story of a starry night reminds me of a time when I was wavering, unsure of the call into ministry I felt I was hearing. I was on a work-related trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. I also was trying to decide whether to leave my public relations career, uproot my family and go to seminary.

I stood on a beach in the dead of the night, the sky brilliant with stars. “God,” I said, “I could use some kind of a sign—anything.” At that moment, a shooting star streaked across the sky.

I also remember thinking, “God, I’m not sure what that means.” I was wavering that much. But I did sense God was with me, and the experience helped me better trust my own seemingly illogical desires.

I’ve learned to seek and welcome those little moments of reassurance in the night. Often, they come after the anxiety that follows failure or confusion. Sometimes they’re vivid, like a shooting star. Other times, they are soft, like a whispered word. They are always a comfort, however, and they leave me anticipating the sunrise.

A Morning of Renewal

We don’t talk much about the morning after Abram’s vision. That’s because the Bible doesn’t tell us any real details about it. The morning is implied, however. We’ve witnessed a night scene, and the next scene happens in broad daylight, before sunset.

It’s good as we read this story to slow down a little and imagine what it must have been like to awaken from such a vision. Thanks to God, despair had found repair and turned into strength. That morning must have seemed like a great gift, an opportunity to begin again with a sense of purpose and trust in God.

I doubt if Abram thought he needed much else from God that morning. Biblical visions seem to be powerful moments for their recipients, events more real than everyday life. The blur of a normal day will wear down the sharp reality of a vision, but the dulling effect usually takes awhile.

There was no opportunity, however, for a regular day to dull Abram’s vision. When God begins pouring out grace, it often comes in surprisingly large doses. At some point in what I imagine to be a blissful day, God showed up again, this time with a connected promise about the land Abram’s descendants would possess.

A Night of Covenant

The language and imagery God used would have been familiar to Abram, employing structures similar to human covenants of the Ancient Near East, intense promises binding the parties for life.

While the sun was still up, God told Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram and cut them in two, laying the opposing pieces so someone could walk between them. A turtledove and a pigeon completed the bloody walkway’s borders. It was gruesome work; Abram had to drive away the vultures until the sun set.

As it grew dark, the eerie arrangement communicated a primitive, clear message for anyone entering a covenant. A party to an agreement, by walking between the pieces, was saying, “If I break this covenant, may such be done to me.” In Abram’s day, if the agreement was between two people of unequal power—say, a farmer and a king—the weaker party might have to make the walk alone.

Abram must have wondered when God would ask him to walk the walk.

The Firepot and the Torch

The Firepot and the Torch

But instead, something strange happened. After sunset, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the pieces. It was not Abram who made the walk. It was the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one in control of all things, who said, “May such be done to me.”

Obviously, it’s not the kind of promise God had to make. It was, however, a remarkable message about how much our creator loves us. His desire to reassure us as he draws us back into a relationship despite our sin is stronger than we can imagine.

Another Blood-Soaked Walk

God’s walk between the bloody carcasses prefigured another walk he did not have to make: the walk to Calvary, to the cross. To fulfill all his promises to Abram—in particular, the promise that Abram’s descendants would bless the whole world—God came among us as Jesus Christ.

There is no way we, in our sinful states, could demand such humility from God. God chose to suppress his infinite strength and masquerade as weak and broken solely for our benefit. In the process, death vented its full wrath where it had no right to do so, and its power was broken.

In other words, there were terrors that should have been visited on us for our sins. But God said, “May such be done to me, instead.”

Through God’s unmerited love, we are both saved and reassured.