Advent thoughts: December 2

“…in you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3—read Genesis 12:1-9).

Several times in the book of Genesis God speaks a blessing upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The details change from occasion to occasion, but three parts of the blessing remain constant: God will make their family into a great nation, that nation will live on the land God showed to Abraham, and from that family on that land will arise a blessing for all people.

Already by the time of the exodus the Israelites have become numerous. However, the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt to Mount Sinai doubted God’s promise to give them the land. As a consequence, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to take the land under Joshua. When the land had been captured (for the most part), it was divided among the tribes and clans and families of Israel. Part of the Law of Moses stipulated that a family could not lose its inheritance. Even if they needed to raise money by selling land, that land would be returned to them at the next Jubilee year. (Those happened every fifty years.) The connection of the people to the land is a running theme in Moses and the prophets. The chief punishment that falls upon the Israelites is invasion from foreigners, the Assyrians and Babylonians who remove God’s people from the land and replace them with other people.

Under the Persians, the faithful remnant was allowed to return to the land and rebuild what had been destroyed. They no longer had political control over the land; they were part of Empires—first the Persian Empire, then Alexander the Great, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally the Romans. For a few years the Jews received a form of independence from the Seleucids in a series of events still celebrated as Hanukah. But when Herod the Great came to power, he ruled over the Jews because the power of Rome backed his government.

At that time, God chose to keep the final part of his blessing to Abraham. Therefore, Joseph left Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem to be counted there by the Romans, because he was a descendant of King David. Joseph brought with him his espoused wife, who was expecting a child. That child was born in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus, from the Hebrew Y’shua, meaning, “the Lord saves.” His mission was to rescue God’s people, not from the Romans or other worldly empires, but from sin and evil and death.

The guest room (or “inn”) on the estate of David’s descendants was already filled when Mary and Joseph arrived, so they were given shelter (or found it on their own) where animals—probably sheep—were sometimes kept. For that reason, when Jesus was born, his mother swaddled him and placed him in a manger, a feeding trough for sheep and other animals. More than thirty years later, another guest room (or “inn”) would accommodate Jesus and his apostles. On that occasion, Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” The infant who once rested in a feeding trough—in a town whose name, Bethlehem, translates as “house of bread”—was still feeding his sheep as he made his way toward the cross to redeem the world from sin and evil.

That redemption was not only for the Jewish people; it was for all nations. In this redemption, God’s promise to Abraham was completed. From the nation that began as Abraham’s family, on the land that God promised to Abraham, all the families of the earth were blessed with the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and victory over all God’s enemies. Thanks be to God! J.

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Scandal and offense

The English word “scandal” comes from a Greek word which sounds about the same. The original meaning of the Greek word scandal was a stone that causes people to stumble. Such a scandal might be a raised threshold in a doorway, a rock embedded in a dirt path, or a loose step on a stairway.

Some scandals were deliberate. Stairs in castles were uneven, but the people who lived in those castles were familiar with the tall steps, the short steps, and the loose steps. If they were fleeing a pursuer, they could confidently travel the irregular stairs, but the newcomer would be overthrown by the scandal.

Jesus called himself a scandal. Those who did not know him or recognize him tripped over him. Jesus came to rescue sinners, but he also caused the downfall of many in Israel who were not prepared to see Jesus as the Messiah, the world’s Savior, the Son of God, or the King of an eternal kingdom.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are not scandalized by me.” Most English translations use the word “offended” to translate the scandal that Jesus identified. Since many people today are easily offended by even the smallest of things, the blessing Jesus spoke is easily misunderstood. Jesus was not concerned that he or his teachings might offend someone. His concern was that people would refuse to recognize him and would therefore be overthrown by him.

The world would be better if people were not so easily offended. On the other hand, the world would also be better if people took more trouble not to offend one another. When everything is offensive, then nothing really matters any more. But common courtesy requires us to strive not to create problems for our neighbors.

If person A says or does something that offends person B, person A might not to be blame. Person A might not realize that person B found those words or actions offensive. Person B has an obligation to tell person A about the offense. Of course this should be done calmly, gently, and lovingly. Once that has happened, person A has a responsibility not to repeat the offense. Purposely and repeatedly doing something that annoys another person is rude; in some cases, it could be considered harassment.

I know two very funny jokes that I never tell except to people I know well. Both of them could be offensive to some people. The humor in both jokes depends upon similar sounding words (important/impotent in one, supplies/surprise in the other). In each joke, the person who misunderstands the word is part of an ethnic minority which would pronounce one word to sound like the other. People unfamiliar with my sense of humor might come to the conclusion that I am mocking minorities, portraying them as stupid, rather than simply reveling in the play of words that sound the same but have very different meanings.

To some people I might seem oversensitive, too concerned about the feelings of other people. But courtesy matters to me; I prefer not to offend people needlessly. On the other hand, I am not shy about the scandal of Jesus Christ and the cross. Should anyone choose to be offended because I speak of Christ and the hope I have in him, they will have to address their complaint to him and not to me. My courtesy does not include participating in the overthrow of a life because I failed to tell them about the scandal that exists. J.

 

Christ in Genesis: birthright and blessing

Men like Noah and Abraham are easily seen as pictures of Christ. Though neither man was sinless, they both obeyed the commands of God and brought blessing to the world through their obedience. The account of Esau and Jacob is harder to view in a Christ-centered way. Most often their relationship is treated as a morality play. Jacob cheats his brother and lies to his father; as a result he has to leave home and live with his cousin, Laban, who in turn cheats Jacob in a matter close to Jacob’s heart.

What, then, can we say of Esau? Before the twins were born, God declared that “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Much later God said, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). Esau despised his birthright—the blessing he deserved for being Isaac’s firstborn son. He exchanged his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob swindled his brother by offering the exchange, but Esau’s low regard for his birthright seems to disqualify Esau as a picture of Christ.

Yet at least Esau got a bowl of soup in exchange for his birthright. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God. He lived a sinless life worthy of great rewards. Yet he exchanged all that belonged to him and all that he deserved. He surrender it all to take on himself the burden of our sins. We are adopted into the family of God by this exchange, and all our guilt is removed from our lives. Instead of a bowl of soup, Jesus receives a cross of suffering. He is abandoned by his Father—which we deserve for our sins—and yet he prays for sinners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Even though Esau had surrendered his birthright to Jacob, and in spite of the fact that God had foretold Jacob’s success over Esau, Isaac still stubbornly wanted to bless his firstborn son. He sent Esau on a hunting expedition, and Esau went out into the wilderness in obedience to his father’s command. At this time, Isaac’s bride Rebekah enters the picture. She plans the deception of Isaac and performs all the work. She cooks the kids, she makes the goatskin gloves for Jacob to wear, and she dresses him in Esau’s clothing. Isaac is blind to his son’s deception, as God the Father is blind in love, accepting us in the name of his Son. As the Church by its teaching and by its blessings clothes us in the righteousness of Christ to bring us to God the Father, so Jacob is prepared by his mother to receive his father’s blessing, the blessing Isaac wanted to give to the son who was doing what Isaac told him to do.

Jacob nearly ruins the scheme by fumbling his one task—when he speaks to his father, he forgets to imitate his brother’s voice. Yet, being blind, Isaac trusts his senses of touch and taste and smell over his sense of hearing. He grants to Jacob the blessing he wanted to give to Esau. He treats Jacob as the son who is doing his father’s will. The same thing happens to Christians today, as God the Father says of Christians what he said to Jesus on the day Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well-pleased.”