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Mennonite Brethren HeraldVolume 42, No. 09July 11, 2003
The person of God and the relevance of the gospel
The Prayer of Jeremiah
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We as a community will consider the future with hope and anticipation, or we will fight over the ragged remnants of a disappearing past. That is our choice. Where is our focus? Are we pressing forward to grasp the living God?

For 40 years, this man had been doing penance. Without Christ, this is what people do. They do penance.

For 40 years, he had been slowly killing himself to pay for his sin.

On that day, he quit doing penance and found forgiveness.

He found life.

Ultimate reality is found in this God the Bible describes.

If we live in the light of that reality, there is life.

If we don’t, there is death, oppression, slavery, fear, insecurity, war and violence.

And there is blood – the blood of the weak and the defenceless shed to appease the gods, whatever form they might take.

The person of God and the relevance of the gospel

Pierre Gilbert

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Consider the declaration of a young woman who introduces to her parents for the first time a serious candidate for marriage. She has talked about him. She has described him in detail. She has been bouncing around the house repeating his name to anyone who will listen. Finally, the great day arrives. The doorbell rings. She opens the door. He comes in. She is beaming from ear to ear. “This is Bob!” No pressure. No manipulation. No threats. Just sheer enthusiasm, joy and the fervent hope that Mom and Dad will give Bob a chance.

What a great formula to use in our secular, postmodern society. No threats. No manipulation. Just sheer enthusiasm. This is our God!

But who is this God anyway?

One day soon, the curtain will be drawn back, and we shall see Him as He really is, but for now we must be content to get partial glimpses of this God. One such glimpse is found in Genesis 22:1–19.

This is our God

This story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son is a very difficult one. At the very least, it seems to raise serious doubts about the goodness of God. Genesis 22:1–2 focus on the horrible nature of God’s request. The reader is left speechless. Abraham finally has the son that had been promised to him. Isaac is the most precious thing in Abraham’s life, for Isaac represents the future. But now God demands that Abraham sacrifice Isaac.

Part of the difficulty in verses 3–8 is the apparent absence of an emotional struggle or of any objection to God’s demand. One presumes that Abraham must have experienced some despair over God’s request, but somehow that does not come through. If anything, it is the reader who worries over Abraham’s insane course of action.

In verses 9–10, the narrative reaches its climax. Abraham binds his son, lays him on the altar and is poised to strike the fatal blow.

Something quite dramatic happens in verses 11–12. The angel of the Lord calls out, “Abraham, Abraham! . . . Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God.” It is as if there had been a contest between God and Abraham to see who was going to blink first, and Abraham won. The reader is worried. The angel of the Lord is worried. But Abraham is portrayed as being calm, as if he knew all along that something extraordinary was going to happen.

In the remaining verses (13–19), the crisis is resolved. A substitute is offered for the life of Isaac, and the Lord repeats His promise to make Abraham into a great nation.

So what is the point of this text?

At a very basic level, this text highlights the incredible faith of Abraham. Abraham has the “real McCoy” when it comes to faith, not some flimsy, wet-noodle, feeling-sorry-for-yourself kind of faith. This is faith at its best. God speaks, Abraham obeys, and that’s all there is to it. Part of the reason for the inclusion of this story in the book of Genesis is to provide a concrete example of faith and loyalty to God.

God’s desire to test Abraham’s faith can be explained by the ongoing temptation of “syncretism”. Abraham and the Israelites later on were constantly tempted to have Yahweh and something else – Baal, a king, military might, alliances with superpowers, magic. Yahweh and something else seems so much more prudent, safe and reasonable. But Yahweh does not tolerate compromise. God has a project on which the fate of humanity depends, and Abraham is an integral part of that project, so He must test Abraham’s love and loyalty. Of course, since God can read hearts, He does not need to go to such great lengths to test anyone, but it is necessary for the community of faith to see what it means to be loyal to God. Abraham passes the test with flying colours.

Why is Abraham so brazenly confident?

First, it is clear that Abraham loves his God with abandoned passion. In fact, he loves God so much that he is willing to cut off in one stroke his greatest treasure on earth.

But I do not think that this is the whole story. Abraham is too confident. There is something else. Why does Abraham show such absolute confidence in God? I think it is because he knows exactly with whom he is dealing. Trust is always based on knowledge.

My brother lives in Winnipeg. Since we’ve become Christians, he and I have been very close. We implicitly and unconditionally trust one another. I often use one of his credit cards to book flights because it enables him to accumulate Airmiles. One time he received a bill for almost $1200. He gave me a call to tell me when the payment was due, he hung up, and that was it. A while back, he told me that he and his wife have written up their will. “If we both die,” he said, “you get the twins and all the assets.” The implicit assumption is that I will take care of the children and set them up financially. Do you know why we trust each other like that? It is because we know each other. We have history. Abraham has full confidence in God because he intimately knows God.

So God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. This seems very scandalous to us, and it should. But it probably did not come as a complete surprise to Abraham. We know that the firstborn belonged to God anyway (Exodus 13:1,12,13,15; 22:29; Numbers 3:13; 18:15) and had to be redeemed by a sacrifice. Moreover, infant sacrifice was not uncommon in the religions of the Ancient Near East. The Canaanite fertility god Baal often demanded the flesh and blood of infants (2 Kings 16:3; Micah 6:7).

But Abraham has had so much experience with God, he knows Him intimately. Abraham knows Yahweh has no need of the flesh and blood of children, a notion confirmed throughout the history of Israel (Leviticus 20:2–5; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35). Yahweh is the God of the promise, the God who tests and who provides, the God who saves and who reveals Himself, the God who lavishes His love on His creation, the living God, the Lord of life! Abraham goes about preparing the sacrifice because in the end he knows that life will prevail (Hebrews 11:17–19). And if life does not prevail, then it can only mean that he has been deceived and life is not worth living anyway.

Now we are getting to something else. This text is about Abraham’s faith, but specifically about Abraham’s faith in God. This text is first and foremost about God, not Abraham. And this God is not Baal. Worshipping Baal means bondage, manipulation, terror, fear and death. Ultimately, Baal always demands human flesh and blood. He demands all and gives nothing in return. In contrast, this wonderful text affirms that the God of Abraham is the God of life.

Generation after generation, Baal rises again, but we never quite recognize him. He takes many forms and disguises. We know of course, that there is no Baal. Baal is an illusion, a cover for the ideologies of dehumanization and exploitation which human societies constantly recreate. Baal is really the System, the Empire and the “World”, as the apostle John calls it. The System demands our all but gives nothing in return. The Nazis sacrificed millions of lives to feed ideological gods whose hunger was insatiable, to feed the System. In Canada, Baal is also well fed. Over two million abortions have been performed in this country since 1970. There was a compelling reason for every one of them: money, career, convenience, despair. The System demanded it. A little while ago, a couple in China was ordered to kill their youngest child because they were over their quota. The couple refused. Civil servants took the baby and drowned it before their eyes. These officials knew it had to be that way. The System demanded it. Baal keeps on reappearing.

French psychoanalyst Tony Anatrella argued in a book in 1993 that a society where abortion, divorce, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, substance addiction and teenage suicide are considered to be unavoidable, is deeply sick. In fact, he speaks of a society in depression. Most surprising is his explanation that this chronic state of depression is directly linked to the rejection of the Judeo–Christian God: “In their desire to free themselves from God, our societies have often produced hopeless and alienating ideologies which implode one after the other.”

This biblical text ultimately addresses one fundamental issue: Whom will we serve – God or Baal? Will we choose life or death? Genesis 22 is ultimately about who our God is. Our God does not want human flesh and blood. He wants to give life.

The notion that God is loving and trustworthy is the single most difficult concept for humans to accept. From the very beginning in the garden of Eden and throughout human history, God has pleaded with men and women to no avail. In the end, the Son came and showed God as He truly is. We have been told that subjects must die for their King, the Empire, the System. Now we know better. It is the King who died for His people, and rose again that they might have life.

These are our people

Genesis 12:1–4 is a very interesting passage. God asks Abraham to leave his home, and Abraham obeys. This is remarkable. No argument. No discussion. No hesitation. Abraham picks up and leaves. Why should he? Abraham was a wealthy and respected man. He had it all . . . except for the most important thing for a man of his time – a son. Without a son, Abraham had no future. He was not getting any younger, and his hopes of having a son were practically nil. Then, all of a sudden, God bursts in on the scene with no warning. This is not unusual, as He never warns us; He just is.

God gave Abraham a glimpse of the future: “I will make you into a great nation.” Abraham’s imagination was fired up. One moment, he had no future. The next moment, he had a future that transcended his wildest hopes. God was doing two things to Abraham. First, God was giving him the ability to imagine a new future. The second thing is unheard of in the ancient world: God was calling Abraham into a partnership.

We as a community of faith are called by God to partner with Him in a cosmic project which transcends time and space, the creation of a people made up of men and women who have chosen to love God. We are called to embrace the future.

But not all embrace the future God has for them, because not all trust Him. The Israelites who came out of Egypt refused to embrace God’s future for them, and they ended up going in circles for 40 years, killing time while awaiting death.

Think of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19). Her present and past were dying. God offered her a new future in partnership with Him, hope, significance, meaning, a purpose to live for and adventure. But she could not let go of the past. She refused to embrace the future and was engulfed by death.

As Mennonite Brethren, do we perceive ourselves in partnership with God? Are we willing to embrace the future God has for us? Are we willing to wager it all on the God of the promise and to live in confidence? Change is something we cannot avoid. I am worried about our ability to retain our identity as Mennonite Brethren and about our ability to train the kind of leaders we will need for the future. Two choices offer themselves to me: I can choose cynicism (the way of death), or I can choose to look confidently towards the future God has in store (the way of life). We as a community will consider the future with hope and anticipation, or we will fight over the ragged remnants of a disappearing past. That is our choice. Where is our focus? Are we pressing forward to grasp the living God?

This is our mission

Throughout the 13 years I ministered in Quebec as a pastor and an educator, I was plagued by one question. That question was spurred mainly by the overwhelming secular nature of Quebec society and the fact that the Church, Catholic or otherwise, is perceived as irrelevant.

When I was a pastor, I was invited to visit a couple at their house. The extended family was there. I immediately figured that we would have a Bible study and address deep spiritual issues. Unfortunately, I happened to show up at exactly 7:00 p.m. as everyone was getting ready to watch Entertainment Tonight. We watched, and we talked during the commercials. I felt extremely awkward. At some point, a thought crossed my mind: “If I were a brain surgeon, and one of you had a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit, I wouldn’t be here competing with ET!” I felt irrelevant.

The question that plagued me was rather simple, although it came in various forms: Do we really have something to offer? Are we truly relevant? What’s the purpose of the church? The most difficult aspect of living in a secular society is to keep people connected to the community of faith. Secularism insidiously undermines our faith and our Christian communities. That overwhelming question has been most pressing on my kids, who look at the church and look at the “world” and are tempted to conclude that the “world” is a lot more real that the church and the faith.

Genesis 12:2–3 affirms that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through Abraham. We often fail to appreciate fully the implications of the promise to Abraham. God is basically saying that Abraham’s descendants would become a community that would incarnate the true God of the universe. There is nothing trivial about that. This is truly a matter of life and death! Ultimate reality is found in this God the Bible describes. If we live in the light of that reality, there is life. If we don’t, there is death, oppression, slavery, fear, insecurity, war and violence. And there is blood – the blood of the weak and the defenceless shed to appease the gods, whatever form they might take. God entrusts Abraham and his descendants with the most important task of all – to testify to the true nature of the God of the universe, to testify to the nature of the ultimate reality.

As Christians, that is our mission. We do this by showing compassion to the poor and oppressed, by being a people of peace in a world of violence, by being the hands of Christ in a world of suffering. But we are first and foremost people of the Word. We have a message to communicate to those around us, a message of reconciliation and life. In a secular, pluralistic society, our greatest challenge will be to keep affirming the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. Without the message of the gospel, without the message of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is no basis for compassion.

There is one story that constantly reminds me of the essence of our mission and the critical nature of the message God has entrusted us. Many years ago, I met an older man. Over time, we became good friends. He made fun of the fact that I was a pastor. (“How does it feel to work only one hour a week?” “I hope you said your prayers this morning – you look like you really need them.”) After a number of meetings, he began to ask me questions about the Christian faith. I tried to explain to him why Christ died and what His resurrection meant. It was obvious that this man was on the verge of making a commitment to Christ, but he could not bring himself to do it. I kept asking him, “Why won’t you accept the forgiveness God wants to extend to you?” He would answer, “I can’t, and that’s all there is to it.” I suspected his unwillingness to make a decision was linked to his military service in Europe during the Second World War. One day, I asked him straight out what the real problem was. Surprisingly, he told me. As he recounted his story, his eyes filled with tears. “An accident,” he kept repeating. “It was an accident.” It was clear that he had replayed this event at least a thousand times, and he was replaying it again in front of me.

Military intelligence had determined that German soldiers were hiding in a house. My friend and a few other soldiers had been given the mission to neutralize them. The soldiers surrounded the house, broke the door down and began shooting. It was dark, and they could not see well. When the dust had settled, they made a horrific discovery. There were no soldiers in the house, only children and a few women. At that moment, this man’s soul was ushered into hell. “That’s why,” he said, “I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness. I don’t even deserve to live.” I did not know what to say, but I finally told him again what he could not accept, that God loved him, that Christ had died for him so that he could live. “Today is a good day to come home,” I said. And he did. This time there were different tears in his eyes. For 40 years, this man had been doing penance. Without Christ, this is what people do. They do penance. For 40 years, he had been slowly killing himself to pay for his sin. On that day, he quit doing penance and found forgiveness. He found life.

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). This is our mission.

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