Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
What would you do to ensure that your children and grandchildren
had a happy life? What personal sacrifices would you make, or what
effort would you expend, to make sure they were well cared for? God
gave Abram and Sarai a straightforward requirement, but one that was
far from simple: "Walk before me, and be blameless." There are two
commands here. The first, "Walk before me," does not mean that
Abram and Sarai were to lead God anywhere. On the contrary, the
word translated "before me" might better be rendered "in my
presence." The verbal form of the word "walk" implies not a single
act, but one that is undertaken repeatedly, or even constantly.
"Remember that everything you do, you do in my presence," God tells
them. The second command is "be blameless," hardly an easy
undertaking. The translation of the word in the King James Version
is even scarier: "Be perfect"! How could Abram and Sarai be
blameless in everything they did? The simple answer is, they
couldn't, and neither can we. Yet still God promised to bless their
children; how could this be? The answer to this conundrum is hinted
at in Ps 18:30, 32. God's way is "perfect' (or "blameless," or
"secure"), and it is he who can make a person's way "perfect" as
well. Returning to the passage in Genesis, we can see that that's
exactly what God does. God gives new names to our spiritual
ancestors, so that they are no longer Abram and Sarai, children of
their parents; now they are Abraham and Sarah, children of God.
What was impossible before, to walk blamelessly before God, is
possible by God's grace. So what should we do to make a better life
for our children and grandchildren? We should receive God's
abundant grace and live our lives in thankfulness for his blessings.
This psalm, which begins with a shriek of abandonment, echoed by
Jesus on the cross, ends with a song of thanksgiving for answered
prayer. God, the psalmist says, did not despise the affliction of
the afflicted. Those who suffer will be comforted, the poor will
eat and be satisfied, and all the nations, even future generations,
will bow down before God. This is truly an idyllic picture, but
how realistic is it? Our present world is full of sorrow,
suffering, and poverty, much of which is needless, and most of which
could be alleviated if people began to act as the psalmist says God
acts. Is someone hungry? Feed him! Is someone in need? Provide for
her! Do hundreds of millions of people go hungry, while a select
few gorge themselves at the trough of plenty? Give to the poor, and
urge governments to do the same! Most of the world's poverty and
suffering is the direct result of human sin and greed, and the whole
world will never bow to a God whose followers are perceived as
beneficiaries of that greed. However, if we will give to the poor,
work for the poor, and advocate with our governments for the poor,
then there's a chance that the world will believe that the God we
claim to serve is really someone worthy of worship and praise.
A poster on the wall behind Fox Mulder's desk in the basement of the FBI building in Washington, DC, says, "I Want to Believe." As Mulder and Scully investigate all sorts of strange phenomena in The X-Files, the themes of faith and skepticism underlie almost every episode. What seems an overwhelming amount of evidence to Mulder is capable of other explanations in Scully's mind. How do we know where to draw the line between faith and gullibility? How can we distinguish healthy skepticism from obtuseness? Just believing in something doesn't make it so, but neither does denying it make it go away. Abraham had faith that God would bless his descendants, and Paul says that those who share Abraham's faith likewise share his blessings. There may well be certain traditional beliefs that modern people would do well to let go of in light of advances in knowledge, but doing so does not mean that we must also let go of our hope. Abraham "hoped against hope" that God would fulfill his promise to him, and we are likewise called on to be people of hope. We can hope for a day when all legalism will be set aside and people will be free to worship God as they feel led. We can hope for a day when all the children of Abraham will be able to live in the same city, and even sit at the same table, in peace. We can hope for a day when people of faith acknowledge and respect the commitment of other believers, even those who believe differently. Until that time, it is up to us, as spiritual descendants of Abraham, to live out our faith in such a way that we promote righteousness and justice to all with whom we have contact.
For another discussion of this passage, click here.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, believed that the authentic Christian life was one lived in the shadow of the cross. "The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" (The Cost of Discipleship). Most of us prefer the view of Peter, who thought Jesus had lost his mind when he began to talk about the suffering he must endure. And who can blame him? Someone who actively seeks to suffer must be considered unbalanced, or at least immature. When Origen, the third century theologian, was a teenager, his father was incarcerated for being a Christian, and he was scheduled for execution. Origen, in his youthful zeal, planned to turn himself in to the authorities as well, but when his mother got wind of it, she hid his only set of clothes, and because he was too embarrassed to go outside naked, his life was spared. Origen went on to become the greatest theologian of his generation, and one of the most original thinkers in the early church. As a young man, he was wrong to think that taking up his cross meant that he had to die a literal death, although many people of his day were killed for their faith. However, he was right to recognize, even at a young age, that being a Christian means something more than just being a member of a social club. It is much more than professing to hold certain fundamental beliefs. Following Christ by taking up one's cross means to be willing to sacrifice one's time, one's efforts, one's career, and possibly even one's life, if circumstances demand it. Eight years after writing the words quoted above, Bonhoeffer, having left the security of England to return and minister in his native Germany, carried his cross into a Nazi prison cell, where he was executed for his opposition to Hitler just a few days before the end of the war. We have not only the example of Jesus, but also the example of people like Origen and Bonhoeffer, who were willing to give up everything they had to follow Christ. What sacrifices are we willing to make?