4 Week Series
Week 1: The Power of Image
Our job as Christians is always to “begin from the very beginning,” wrote Karl Barth when describing the task of theology (Karl Barth, John McTavish, and Harold Wells, Karl Barth, Preaching through the Christian Year [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 11). We are to begin in the beginning with God. “In the beginning God created . . .” (Genesis 1:1 NIV).
Our series on Genesis begins with God, creating and setting into motion God’s creation. It begins with God’s promise to bless humanity and to depict a God who covenants to share in creation from beginning to end, forming creation out of nothing (Genesis 1:1–2:4a), and creating a unique people where there is no people (12:1-3). Here we discover a God who does not simply stand aloof but steps into creation. Here we find a God who creates a cosmos in which goodness is depicted throughout: “And God saw that it was good” (1:25). Here is a God who speaks creation into being and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” and who charges humankind to “have dominion” over all living creatures upon the earth (1:26). This God calls humankind to the responsibility of stewardship and care of the earth. This God’s image is stamped into humanity’s very being, and this God commands humanity to be fruitful and multiply (1:28).
Therefore, when we speak of God’s image in humanity, we speak also of God’s identity, or the way God relates to what God creates on the one hand, and of how we are to reflect back to God and to creation the very good purposes of God on the other. What we see in the beginning in Genesis is how the image of God in humans is that part of creation that discloses something about God’s reality in the world; for here is a God who is known peculiarly through the Creation: God has brought forth human beings. Therefore, whatever we may say about the power of being created in God’s image, we need to speak of what is life-giving and not life-destroying, in terms of what is good and not what is bad. We need to see the power and freedom of being created in God’s image!
Being created in God’s image is a blessing, but it is a blessing we often use in ways that oppose God’s true purposes and intentions. Too often we fail to use our freedom for God and others. We fail to see how our freedom affects the web of relationships in which we live and move and have our being, including our relationship with the earth. We fail to see how our relationships with God and with others are to flow out of deep respect for all of life rather than manipulation of life. In short, we fail to see how our “image” has become less than what God intended in the beginning!
In fact, what we realize throughout Genesis is that our “image problem” is really a reflection of our own failure to see our condition as it really is—a reflection of our own disobedience and sinfulness, an inability to see how we have fallen short of God’s glory or how, by God’s grace, we can be restored. We fail to see how, through God’s Spirit, we can be changed. It is only in admitting such failure that we can ever learn what it means to be renewed in the knowledge that we were created in God’s image in the first place, or that we can be reconciled to Christ, who is the firstborn of all creation, the true image of the invisible God.
Again and again, we do whatever we can to cover up or “improve” upon God’s image in us, to the point that we lose the blessings of freedom to live in fruitful community with others; we lose our moral dimension when we seek to distort God’s purposes for creation. In short, we lose ourselves in distrust as we usurp what rightly belongs to God.
Companies spend millions of dollars running commercials to project the “right” image to potential consumers or investors, in order to make more money to sell more products. Politicians hire consultants to communicate an image of strength and confidence, but only to spin opinion or influence the media. Sports stars use high-powered agents or performance-enhancing drugs to make sure they stay on top, then work just as hard to conceal the truth about themselves. We will do almost anything to enhance our images and keep people from seeing who we really are.
We have often seen, in recent years, how images projected into the world are not always honest. Our efforts to betray God’s image often lead to a betrayal of trust in our public, family, community, and national lives. Corporations such as AIG Insurance, Investors Overseas, WorldCom, Enron, HealthSouth, Sunbeam, and Waste Management; and individuals such as Charles Keating, Michael Milken, and Bernard Madoff all projected images of success that only concealed betrayals as old as Adam and Eve.
All of our attempts to enhance our images cover up the truth: we stand in need of restoration and redemption. At the heart of our image problem is the need to recover the calling for which we were first created: to live in true fellowship and freedom with God and one another, and to live in the kind of community of trust that reflects God’s gracious intent for creation. We are creatures to whom much is given and from whom Christ expects much in return. It is this image problem for which Christ came and suffered, and it is for the promise of new life and blessing for all that he rose and comes to us today and always. As we clean up our image, and reclaim our inheritance as children of God, we all can sing God’s glory: As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen!
Week 2: The Power of Blessing
One evening as I watched television, I saw a man speaking to a large crowd. He was quite successful, and he said the secret of his success was the way God had blessed him. He said that God had been the power behind his profits and achievements. In fact, his level of success was so great, he no longer had to go to work!
Yet, listening to this gentleman, I couldn’t help but ask, “Is this why God blesses us, so we can take off work and live in the lap of luxury?” Something doesn’t seem right here. In this picture, God has become nothing more than a cosmic bellhop who gives us what we want. Surely there is more to God than the blessing of a business!
For close to two thousand years the church has had to wrestle with the divine-human relationship. Where do God’s promises and blessings end and our responses begin? Where does God’s will meet our will in the divine-human encounter? It has not always been easy to discern. If we can do it all on our own, or if God is simply at our beck and call, then why bother with God? Why take the time to talk about God’s blessings when behind the scenes we plot our own course anyway? It’s as old as Genesis itself: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, the tower of Babel—all point to the human desire to sneak around God’s promises and do what we want.
And yet, the power of God’s call to Abram is the ability to see beyond our needs to God’s blessings. That power helps us realize that the only reason we can is because God already has. We can accomplish what we do because God has already accomplished all things. God said yes to us long before we said yes to God. God has been there all along, giving us strength to do what God has called us to do.
The story of God’s blessing and call of Abram reminds us that the focus of God’s blessings is not on the one being blessed. Rather, God’s blessings focus on how to share with others. Abram is blessed to be a blessing, not for personal gain. That’s the vision!
In other words, God did not say, “I will bless you so that your name will be great and everyone will love you” or “I will bless you so that you may live a life of luxury” or “I will bless you so that you won’t have responsibilities and concerns anymore.” Rather, God says, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
The central purpose behind the blessing of Abram and Israel is to bless the world. Abram’s primary role is to ensure that all children become blessed. The whole thrust is to foster ways of showering blessings on the least brothers and sisters. In short, Abram’s mission is to set into motion God’s plan of creation, the blessing of every last creature.
God blesses, and we then bless others. That’s the logic of the mission. Why does God give us gifts and talents? Why does God grant us peace and even sometimes prosperity? The answer is not found in keeping things to ourselves. Rather, it is found in the movement from self to God: God does not bless us for our own sake. Instead, God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others—even those who may hurt or injure us.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee was confident of God’s favor upon him, thanking God that he was not like other people (thieves, adulterers, even tax collectors). He boasted of fasting twice a week and tithing. The tax collector, on the other hand, stood far off with his head down. He beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Jesus told the crowd that the tax collector went home “justified” (18:14). In God’s kingdom, Jesus said, all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
In God’s way of putting the world right, blessings come to us not for gain but to share in Christ’s reign of redemption. All of God’s creation is good, and God chooses to bless all creatures.
In Genesis, the promise to Abram is to become the father of many nations, not just one. Abram’s children will come from many tribes. To all who seek a mission today in a world of violence and war, is there a better mission and call than to be a blessing to others? Abram’s call is the first hint of the “Great Commission” to make disciples of all peoples and nations (Matthew 28:16-20). Our mission, as God’s people, as Christ’s church, as fathers and mothers, is not simply to take care of our own, but to take the promise of blessing and hope beyond ourselves to all of God’s children today and in the generations to come.
Week 3: The Power of Hope
The story of Abraham and Sarah requires us to cross the threshold of faith in ways we cannot imagine. Do you ever wonder what could have been going through Abraham’s and Sarah’s minds as they received the news they were going to have a baby? We know that God made a covenant with Abraham and promised to make him the father of many nations. We have journeyed with Abraham and Sarah to this juncture, and now we are left with a question: How will God work out the covenant promises? How will hope be victorious where barrenness rules?
Perhaps it is an understatement to share that in times of uncertainty people begin to look for hope. In fact, politicians run on the theme of hope, proclaiming that they represent a break with the past; indeed, they are the ones who can provide hope! Give hope a chance! In times of uncertainty, it is easy to send out a search party to find hope. Where can we find it? Where is it?
Since September 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina, we have been wondering what else there is. What does the future hold? Will we continue to resort to endless violence? Will we continue to expend our every waking moment on endless activities of sports and entertainment? If the future does not seem to hold much promise, why not get lost in the present, why not live for today? Who cares about tomorrow?
When we are young, we want reassurance about the purpose of our lives. We want to find our way in this world. We seek some kind of reaffirmation amid the confusion of the world’s competing voices and interests. But we also expend energy on the now, pursuing life without giving much attention to what is to come. It’s a paradox, and in the course of our seeking, fear and anxiety can take hold. As we grow older, we seek reassurance about the promises of life, in particular, about eternal life. We want to believe in tomorrow, even when we encounter trouble today. Regardless of age, though, the message is the same: without hope, we fall into despair and lose touch with the promises of the future.
The story of Abraham and Sarah speaks to the power of hope. When we first meet the couple, God has chosen them to bring into existence a great nation with a future full of promise. This covenant brings into focus, not simply the future of a people, but the story of a creator who makes something out of nothing. Where there was nothing there is now a new people—God’s people. God blesses Israel to be a blessing, living among the other nations. That’s the promise—and the challenge.
But in our story, there is an obstacle to the promise—barrenness; not simply the inability to conceive, but the inability to hope. That’s the kind of barrenness Genesis describes. Barrenness is not simply the absence of children but the absence of hope, the absence of a future, the absence of promise. Abraham and Sarah are barren, without hope.
God steps in to remind Abraham that he will become the father of many nations and that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, that the land he will inhabit will be a “perpetual holding” (Genesis 17:8). God’s covenant promise is fertile with hope. But still no children, until God blesses Sarah’s womb with life, and she conceives. She bears a son, Isaac, who will carry the covenant into the future. From Isaac’s offspring will come forth children to bless and populate the earth. Isaac will be the covenant-bearer. Isaac will take the promises into tomorrow.
All of this sounds unthinkable to the older couple. Sarah laughs so hard she falls on the floor crying: How can God fulfill this kind of promise? Abraham has no reason to hope. He looks at the land of Canaan, and he looks at Sarah, and he sees nothing but barrenness. He looks at his circumstances and thinks, Nothing can come of this! But Abraham has every reason to hope; God has made a promise to him. God has called him and given to him the hope of a new future. God will fulfill the promise.
Hope is not fleeting, and hope does not disappoint. In fact, to live in hope means to live with the assurance of God’s presence in our lives, knowing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
One of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life, then, is not so much the call to sacrifice as to hope—to continue to hope through the authentic trials of life—to hope against hope.
By its very texture we realize that hope is a gift of God. It is the gift of God’s covenant love with Israel and the church, the gift of God’s grace when the Son dies on the cross and when despair seems to have the upper hand. That’s the paradox of hope: It is the power God gives of eternal life in the face of sin and death.
Sound unthinkable? Given the evidence, yes, it is unthinkable, even laughable. Who can imagine such hope? But given the one who makes the promise, no, it is not unimaginable. It is the power of God in salvation, the gift that doesn’t disappoint—and never will. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Week 4: The Power of God’s Goodness
Over the last three Sundays, our journey through Genesis has been revealing. We have heard that God goes to great lengths to covenant with a particular people for the redemption of the world (Genesis 12:1- 3). God offers a kind of “scandalous goodness” toward Abraham and 215 July 3, 2011 Sarah’s offspring as they journey toward becoming a great nation. Despite dysfunction and barrenness, deception and despair, God is faithful to the covenant (17:15-22). God’s grace provides freedom, even within the contingencies of Israel’s history (2:15-17).
Therefore, it may seem odd on the Sunday before Independence Day to share a sermon on the power of God’s goodness! In fact, it may seem odd not to focus on God’s grace “shed on thee,” or on America as a “shining city on a hill.” Never mind that Jesus called the church to assume this position among all the nations of the world. The whole notion of a “royal priesthood” might pale in comparison to the power of the state (1 Peter 2:9). Nevertheless, we ask: How does the power of God’s goodness provide a message of hope to a people struggling to remain faithful in a time of uncertainty? Indeed, how may we, as God’s chosen, overhear what God is saying to us as both citizens and disciples? Perhaps Joseph and his “band of brothers” supply the necessary clues and answers.
The story of Joseph is fascinating; it occupies the last third of Genesis (37–50). To many of us, the name Joseph may conjure up all kinds of images—the coat of many colors, jealousy among the brothers, the father’s favorite son, or the dreamer. As the story opens in chapter 37, Joseph is the youngest of Jacob’s eleven sons, firstborn of Rachel. He is seventeen years old and has a very special relationship with his father. He has been blessed with unique gifts and talents and has been the center of attention since birth, so much so that the attention sparks envy among the other ten. In fact, we will learn that the older brothers plot against Joseph and sell him into slavery. I can hear the complaint of Tommy Smothers, of Smothers Brothers fame, in the background: “Mom always liked you best.”
To be sure, this is probably not the story to help us brush up on family values. In fact, we wonder why Jacob and Rachel don’t handle this better. After all, they surely know how brothers can act. Jacob and Esau began fighting before they were born. Why doesn’t Jacob pay more attention to what is happening in his own family? Doesn’t he see what is taking place?
The obvious answer is no. Jacob, like his father, Isaac, doesn’t see what is unfolding beneath his own nose. His sons sell Joseph into slavery, making arrangements with a band of Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt. The deal is sealed, and with Joseph’s coat still dripping with goat’s blood, Joseph becomes a slave in Egypt.
In Egypt, Joseph matures, becomes a different person, and rises to prominence, becoming the pharaoh’s prime minister and one of the most powerful people on earth. Who would have thought Joseph would gain in stature in this way? And who would have thought that he and his brothers would meet again? With famine spreading, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking relief. Because of Joseph’s advice, Egypt is one of the few places food can be found.
When the brothers arrive, they don’t recognize Joseph. Joseph was merely a boy when they betrayed him. Now he is an adult wearing the clothing of nobility. Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him.
Now comes one of the most dramatic scenes in the Bible. Joseph instructs his brothers to fetch their father, Jacob, who is nearing death. Joseph wants to see his father one last time. He also requires that the youngest son, Benjamin, stay behind while the brothers go back to Canaan. It’s a tense situation. In time, though, with all the family gathered, there is a reunion. Then Jacob dies, and the brothers fear that, with Jacob gone, Joseph will take his revenge.
Joseph offers forgiveness instead. Rather than revenge, he offers mercy. In fact, there are tears: Joseph cries, the brothers cry, everyone cries tears of reconciliation. Joseph expresses the grace of the moment: “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:19-20).
Even though the brothers intended harm, God intended good! This is certainly not to say that God intended for Joseph to be treated inhumanely, or that God intended for the brothers to plot murder. The glorious point here is that there is nothing beyond God’s redemptive power of grace.
Yet this story resists easy notions of God’s providence. Joseph’s encounter with God is real but elusive; God remains in the shadows and behind the scenes, working toward the best possible end. This story transcends national boundaries. It is grounded, not in party affiliation or denominational heritage or national identity, but in God’s goodness toward creation. Ultimately, nothing can prevent God’s goodness from being fulfilled. This story reminds us that God isn’t finished with us yet.
That’s good news! In a world becoming fragmented through racism and war, in a nation becoming fractured by violence and poverty and drugs, and in a church becoming divided by indifference on the one hand and zealotry on the other—the promise of God’s goodness remains steadfast. Despite our worst intentions, God redeems. God can take the fragile pieces of our lives and weave them into a new creation, working behind the scenes to shape a whole new future. Amen.