Coincidence or Providence?

Abraham sent his chief servant to his home country in Mesopotamia to find a bride for his son Isaac. Isaac was the chosen one who would be the recipient of God’s covenant promises, and would pass them on to his offspring. The choice of a bride would be vitally important.

Genesis 24 tells the story. It shows us how God works through the ordinary circumstances and events of our lives. It shows us how a man of faith like Abraham acknowledged God’s purposes and believed in God’s promises. It teaches us about prayer, in both its simplicity and its urgency.

When Abraham’s servant arrived at his destination in Haran, he prayed for success in his mission. At the site of the town well, he asked God for a sign. Would the girl whom God would choose be willing to provide water for his entire herd of camels when he asked for a drink of water for himself?

Among the young women coming to the well that evening was beautiful Rebekah with her water jar upon her shoulder. He noticed her immediately. Was it a mere coincidence that she was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor?

When he, a weary traveler, asked the girl for a drink of water, she responded with unusual grace. “‘Drink, my lord,’ she said and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink” (Genesis 24:18).

“After she had given him a drink, she said, ‘I’ll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough to drink.’ So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels” (Genesis 24:19-20).

I have read that a thirsty camel can drink over 32 gallons of water at one time! We can only imagine the labor involved in watering ten camels. The man was watching her carefully the whole time as she went about this task. Was this a coincidence, or was God showing him the person who should be the bride for Isaac?

He then offered her gifts of gold and he asked about her family. She told him who her father and grandparents were. He then ventured to ask if they would provide him shelter for the night. She responded in the affirmative. Coincidence? The servant of Abraham did not think so. He bowed in worship and praised the Lord “who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives” (Genesis 24:27).

The gifts of gold he gave Rebekah prepared  a welcome from Laban, Rebekah’s brother. “A gift opens the way for the giver” (Proverbs 18:16). Laban escorted Abraham’s servant to the very household which he had sought. They offered him elaborate Middle Eastern hospitality. This was surely more than mere coincidence. It shows us the operation of divine providence in the lives of God’s people.

Millard Erickson has written, “Providence in certain ways is central to the conduct of the Christian life. It means that we are able to live in the assurance that God is present and active in our lives. We are in his care and can therefore face the future confidently, knowing that things are not happening merely by chance. We can pray, knowing that God hears and acts upon our prayers. We can face danger, knowing that he is not unaware and uninvolved.”

Abraham’s servant declined to eat the feast the family provided until he had told his story in it’s entirety. He told how the Lord had blessed Abraham and his family. He recounted how Abraham had sent him to find a bride for Isaac from among his own people. He told about his prayer for guidance and how Rebekah had matched exactly the person for whom he had prayed. This was more than coincidence. This was the providence of God!

Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and her father Bethuel agreed saying, “This is from the Lord; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed” (Genesis 24:51). Rebekah also agreed. The next day when they asked her if she was willing to go immediately to be the wife of Isaac, her answer was clear and direct, “I will go.”

The Bible does not describe the details of the journey back to Canaan. It does give us the tender scene when Rebekah met Isaac and became his wife. “He loved her,” the scripture says.

Joyce Baldwin wrote, “Thus each found love and security in the other, and they shared the deep undergirding of the knowledge that the Lord God of Abraham had brought them together. If they were ever tempted to doubt that, they could recall the marvelous providence that took Abraham’s servant straight to Rebekah, and the prayer and praise that surrounded the whole venture, all of which betokened the unmistakable guidance of God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Praying for Guidance

At a family mealtime the father offered a prayer of blessing for the food as usual. In pious language he thanked the Lord for all his bountiful provisions. But when he started eating he grumbled and complained about the food and the way it was prepared.

His teenage daughter interrupted. “Dad,” she began, “Do you think God heard your prayer?”

“Certainly,” he replied confidently.

“And did he hear it when you complained about the food just now?” She asked.

“Why of course!” he bellowed.

“Then which of the two statements did God believe?” The embarrassed flush on his cheeks revealed that her discerning questions hit a nerve. Too often our prayers are empty rhetoric, mere religious platitudes, off the tops of our heads not from the bottom of our hearts.

Do we pray beyond our own personal concerns and interests? I heard of a young lady who said to herself, “Today, I am not going to pray for myself. I am just going to pray for others.”

So she prayed, “Please, Lord, give my mother a handsome son-in-law!”

Then there were the two Sunday school boys who somehow got to talking about their families’ prayers. “Do your parents have a morning prayer with you?” one asked the other.

“No. We have prayers before bed. We’re not afraid in the daytime.”

Whatever the prompting, our heavenly Father invites us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) in all circumstances. This assumes that God is always listening and wants to hear from us. President Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “I have often been driven to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

I think that is how the chief servant of Abraham felt when he was given the assignment of going to Mesopotamia to find a bride for Isaac. The story is recorded in Genesis 24. He must have felt the weight of the responsibility that was being laid on him. So he prayed. He prayed with sincere faith in God. He prayed with humble dependence and desperate urgency.

May we pray for the success of our ventures and responsibilities? The Bible says we can, and we should. “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans” (Proverbs 16:3).

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

That is what Abraham’s servant did. When he arrived at the town of Nahor in the north country, he parked his ten-camel caravan near the town well and prayed, “Lord God of my master Abraham, make me successful today and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ — let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

You have probably noticed the same things I see in this prayer. He believed God saw him in his present circumstances. God sees you and me, too. He knows all about the problems we are facing.

He prayed specifically and boldly. We may do the same thing. James 4:2 reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask God.” So ask!

The servant asked God for a sign that would be clear and unmistakable. Any young woman who would volunteer to provide enough water for ten thirsty camels to drink would be unusually helpful and kind-hearted, not to mention hard-working!

Then the text says, “Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar upon her shoulder” (Genesis 24:15). Here is another principle to guide us in our praying. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him,” Jesus said (Matthew 6:8). The prophet Isaiah tells us the Lord says, “Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).

The servant’s prayer was artless and unadorned. It was from the heart. It acknowledged God’s special purpose for Abraham and Isaac. It was a prayer for guidance in carrying out a responsibility that the servant knew would be consequential. He knew that all of this was to accomplish the plan of God.

God heard. God answered. Rebekah’s actions matched exactly his request for a sign. It is no wonder that with gratitude he “bowed down and worshipped the Lord,” and praised the God of Abraham (Genesis 24:48)!

Pastor Randy Faulkner

Faith and Culture

Abraham is an example to us of what it means to live by faith. John Wesley expressed it thus: “Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees and looks to God alone; laughs at impossibilities and cries, ‘It shall be done!'”

“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3, Genesis 15:6). His faith was on display amidst the customs and cultures of the ancient Near East.

He believed the word of God which had assured him that his descendants would come through Isaac his beloved son. When it was time for Isaac to marry, Genesis 24 says that Abraham directed his chief servant to find a bride for his son from among his kinfolk in the region of Haran in Northern Mesopotamia. He did not want Isaac to marry a woman from the idol-worshipping Canaanites. Nor did he want his son to stray from the Promised Land in search of a wife.

This separatism was an early example of a principle that is repeated throughout the Bible. Believers should not be “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17) with unbelievers, but are to marry “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). This expression of singular faith in the living God was to be the unifying factor in Israelite families. They were to be a distinctive people, separate from the pagan cultures around them “holy unto the Lord.”

So the aged Abraham called his servant to come near and to place his hand under his thigh, to affirm a solemn oath in God’s name that he would carry out this sacred task. (Later Jacob would employ the same ritual to secure the pledge from Joseph that he would be buried in the Promised Land and not in Egypt; Genesis 47:29). This gesture, mysterious to us, was associated with procreation and the family line, and invoked a most serious commitment.

There are other cultural features in the story showing that God works through established norms of human custom, as long as they are not violations of his moral law. These include the use of a caravan of camels, expensive gifts for the family of the bride, a public well where the women of the town came to draw water, and an elaborate welcome feast offered to the servant by the family of Abraham’s brother Nahor.

The story does not describe the 400 mile journey from Abraham’s home in Canaan to Aram Naharaim (“Aram of the two rivers,” the Tigris and the Euphrates). The trip must have taken several weeks. The faith of Abraham was carried forward in the faithfulness of his loyal servant. It demonstrates to us how God meets us in our own cultural situations and invites us to trust and obey as Abraham did.

Joyce Baldwin described this beautifully. “(Abraham) was encouraged to believe that the same Lord who had led him, spoken to him, and sworn on oath to give him descendants, would send his angel before his servant. The servant, however, might not share Abraham’s conviction, so Abraham assured him that he would not be held liable if he came back empty-handed. The solemn oath indicated how deadly serious Abraham was in all he asked of his retainer; on the success of this enterprise depended the separateness of the people of God, a necessary condition for developing a counter-culture that would reflect their walk with God.”

Pastor Randy Faulkner

God has a Purpose

Abraham knew that God had a special purpose for his son Isaac. He had been miraculously born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. The Lord had said that his covenant promises would be fulfilled through Isaac. When the Lord had tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, he was pleased with Abraham’s obedient response and he kept him from following through with the sacrifice. Isaac was spared when the Lord provided a male sheep as a substitutionary offering. Even though Abraham had other children, Isaac was considered to be the “only” son, the beloved son, the son of promise.

It is not surprising, then, that when the time came for Isaac to marry, the aged patriarch Abraham wanted to do all he could to insure that a suitable bride could be found for his son. Isaac’s bride would be the mother of Abraham’s descendants who would occupy the promised land. In one of the most beautiful stories in the Old Testament, Abraham assigned to his personal servant the task of locating a bride for Isaac and bringing her to him (Genesis 24:1-67).

This story has important lessons for us about God’s purpose, and his providential care in accomplishing his purpose. That is why I want to explore it here in a few installments, beginning today.

Genesis 24 opens with the statement that “Abraham was now very old and the Lord had blessed him in every way.” This makes me think of all the ways the Lord has blessed me throughout my life. How about you? Let’s remember to thank him regularly for his protection, provision, for his guidance and care.

God had blessed Abraham with a beautiful wife, Sarah, with great wealth, with a beloved son, Isaac, and with a reputation among his neighbors as a “mighty prince.”

Abraham summoned his chief servant, the one who was in charge of his household. The servant was given the commission to find a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s heir. Derek Kidner points out that he is an attractive person because of “his quiet good sense, his piety and faith, his devotion to his employer, and his firmness in seeing the matter through.”

As he instructed his servant, Abraham asked him to swear in the name of God that he would fulfill the charge. What he said gives us an idea of his view of God (Genesis 24:3). He is the Lord, Yahweh, the God of the covenant, who keeps his promises. The Lord is the God of heaven. He is the ruler of the glorious invisible realm of heaven, reigning in power over the universe.

He is also the God of earth, who takes an interest in the concerns of all his people, guiding and providing. He spoke words of assurance and faith to his servant. “The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and out of my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ — he will send his angel before you” (Genesis 24:7).

Here are a few thoughts in response to this. God has a purpose for our lives and he wants us to cooperate with his purpose. The New Testament gives us plenty of guidance about God’s purpose, what he wants us to know about him and how he wants us to live for him.

Our lives have significance and value. We matter to God. As we shall learn from this important story, God is willing to  hear our prayers and arrange circumstances so that our lives may accomplish his purpose. Abraham trusted the promise of God for his son Isaac. We may trust him too.

God is both the sovereign ruler of heaven, and the Lord of earth. He is both transcendent and immanent, distant and near. Worship and obedience are the correct responses to such a God.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

What is the Church?

People in America are “joiners.” The majority love being part of clubs, associations, and other organized groups. Hobbyists, collectors, civic clubs, business and trade organizations are examples of this.

One organization that is still going strong is the church. I have read that there are over 350,000 congregations in America. There are more churches than post offices; more churches than McDonald’s restaurants. Approximately 20% of Americans attend worship services weekly.

What distinguishes the church from other associations? What makes the church distinctive? The church is not a building, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may appear. It is not a denomination. The New Testament says nothing about denominations. These are fellowships of churches, and they are not forbidden by the Bible. But neither are they mentioned.

A small prayer or Bible study group may be part of a church, but it is not the same thing. Nor is a large gathering in a stadium or arena for an area-wide evangelistic witness. These are good, but they are not the same as local churches.

The church is not a mission society or para-church ministry. These are ministry structures which are task-oriented and highly selective. They are set up to complement and support the work of local churches, but they are not churches. We may discover a working definition of the church by reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter is addressed to “the church of God in Corinth” (1:2).

An assembly of Christian people

The word “church” means a “called-out assembly.” Paul also called these people at Corinth “saints” because they had put their faith in Jesus as savior. We learn from reading the letter that they were not perfect people. But they were Christian believers, set apart for God.

In geographical proximity to one another

the fact that it was “in Corinth” reminds us that the church is placed in a local context to be a witness. It is true that the New Testament speaks of the church a s universal body of Christ. But the majority of references to the church have to do with specific people gathering in specific local congregations.

United in covenant relationship

This becomes clear when we read the rest of the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives the reason why he wrote the letter. He wants these believers in Corinth to be unified in their commitment to their doctrinal confession. This confession centered on the gospel, the message of the cross (1 :17, 2:2). This is the basis of the church’s unity. It is the bond which holds the church together, “united in mind and thought.”

Building up one another by the cooperative use of their spiritual gifts

The Corinthians, Paul says, were endowed with spiritual gifts. These gifts were to be used for the building up of the church in knowledge, unity and strength (1 :5-7 and chapters 12-14). Spiritual gifts are divinely-given abilities to minister to the needs of the church, which is Christ’s spiritual body.

For the proclamation of holy scripture

Paul wrote about his preaching. “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on the wisdom of men, but on God’s power” (2:2-5).

For the purposes of worship and witness

The Corinthian church was far from ideal. There were problems that Paul needed to address: controversies, divisions, immorality, and doctrinal errors. Their immaturity and disobedience were hindering both their worship and their witness. So Paul wrote the letter to correct errors  and abuses in both. That is why he clarified his teaching about the ordinances of baptism (1:10-17) and the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). Both of these ordinances given by Jesus are for the church’s worship and witness.

The information we gather from 1 Corinthians helps us to see that a New Testament church is an assembly of Christian people in geographical proximity to one another, united in covenant relationship, to build up one another through the cooperative use of spiritual gifts, for the proclamation of holy scripture, and for the purposes of the worship of God and witness to the world.

African theologian Conrad Mbewe wrote that every Christian should become an active member of a local church. He is right. What about you?

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Zooming to Africa

For the past two weeks I have been teaching in Africa. I didn’t cross the ocean to do this. Instead, through the magic of the internet I was connected to a classroom at the Evangelical Seminary of West Africa where twenty students gathered to study pastoral theology with me for three hours a day.

I am not a professional educator, so I prayed for guidance as I prepared for this. I spent months getting ready for the course, reading and indexing books on pastoral theology, then writing lectures on the science and art of pastoral practice. I’ve been working on this all year long.

It was not easy, but I was glad to do it for these worthy young men who are dedicated servants of the Lord. They are in seminary working on master’s degrees, in addition to holding down jobs and pastoring local churches. It was an unexpected privilege to serve the Lord in this way.

My good friend Dr. Rick Calenberg is president of the seminary. He retired as head of the missions department at Dallas Theological Seminary and promptly went back to Africa to invest in the lives of Liberian pastors and leaders. When he invited me to teach this course, I could not say no.

Because of COVID-related complications that arose back in the summer, we decided that it would be best for me to try to teach through a Zoom connection. The system worked fine, despite a few glitches along the way, due to my clumsiness with technology. Teaching through my laptop required intense concentration, but it was good to interact, back and forth, with these men of God.

The main source of authority for this course was the Bible. It is as theologian Thomas Oden wrote, “Scripture is the primary basis for understanding the pastoral office and its functions. … Pastoral theology lives out of scripture.” Among my first classes was an expository survey of 1 Timothy, a pastoral epistle.

I wanted to convey the joys as well as the responsibilities, of being a pastor. I taught lessons on the calling, duties, and character of the pastor. There were other lessons on worship, church officers (elders and deacons), the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the priority of preaching. I emphasized pastoral care, discipleship training, and leadership, among other subjects. The last lessons were about the pastor’s family life and self-care and personal renewal.

I hope this training helped shape the thinking of these good men. I hope it strengthened them professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. I  hope it was an eternal investment in their lives, but I also hope that it was an investment in their churches, and their families. I hope it was an investment in the spiritual life of the West African nation of Liberia, for God’s glory.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Living Life Under the Threat of Terrorism

The daily newspaper and television documentaries have been reminding me that we are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation. Newscasters have been interviewing survivors and family members of those who were killed. They are reliving before the cameras the terrible events of that September day in 2001.

Some of them fought back tears as they remembered fellow first responders, family members and co-workers who had died. Some testified to the new lease on life they had been given as survivors. Some shared deeply moving stories of their struggles with permanent injuries and PTSD.

Like you, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when news of the destruction of the World Trade Center reached me. I was at Glen Eyrie, the home of the Navigators in Colorado Springs, attending meetings of a mission board. Flying home was out of the question. All commercial airlines were grounded for several days afterward. I remained at Glen Eyrie until I could get a flight home to Oklahoma City three days later.

Tomorrow we will remember the tragic events of September 11, the porous airports, the hi-jacked airliners, the heroism of the passengers on United Flight 93, the crash into the Pentagon, the rush to protect government officials, the confusion in the streets of New York City. We also recognize the profound changes to American life that have ensued, especially the willingness of Americans to trade privacy and personal freedom for increased security.

The precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Afganistan and the subsequent resurgence of the Taliban, has thoughtful people speculating about the possibility of new terrorist organizations emerging to threaten the United States of America. Some say that there have been “sleeper cells” of terrorists in our country all along, awaiting the opportunity to strike again with renewed confidence and deadly force. Is their signal to strike the anniversary we commemorate tomorrow?

What should we do? Should we close our borders and close our hearts? Should we load up on guns and ammo  and fuel our passions with suspicion, fear and prejudice? Should we hunker down and hide out until the second coming? What is our duty to one another, to ourselves, and to God as we seek to live healthy lives in a dangerous world?

You and I are not the first ones to ask such questions. At the beginning of the Second World War, the Oxford University scholar C.S. Lewis was invited to give a sermon at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford. This was occasioned by the uncertainty caused to Oxford undergraduates by the coming war with Germany. Lewis, himself a veteran of World War I, was asked to put world events into perspective for the young men of the university. How could they continue with their studies when war was imminent?

What Lewis said to those students about the war in Europe could apply as well to us living under the threat of terrorism. Permit me to extract just a few of the points he made. (To read his address in its entirety, you may find it online, or you may order the book of Lewis’s addresses edited by Walter Hooper, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.)

Lewis said we must remember that the world has always been a dangerous place. Life has never really been “normal.” The war (or terrorism) “creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” We must accept it.

He reminds us that the great Christians of the past “thought it is good for us to be always aware of our mortality. … We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.”

Just as Lewis  believed the allied cause was just and that serving one’s country in the military was a legitimate duty, so it follows that he would agree that to oppose terrorism is a righteous cause. That said, it does not excuse or endorse every strategy, political, military, or covert that has been used in the war on terror. Those are prudential judgments to be made by the wisest of leaders under the guidance of God.

Ordinary people are not to suspend the ordinary course of life on account of the fear of terrorism. To the students living under the threat of war Lewis said that they should consider their work as scholars as work done for the glory of God. “The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.'”

Just as we are not to live in fear, we are not to give in to futility and frustration with the thought that life is so tentative and uncertain that there is no use pursuing one’s dreams and goals, marriage, children, career, serving God. No!

C.S. Lewis wrote, “A more Christian attitude, which can be attained at any age, is leaving futurity in God’s hands. We may as well, for God will certainly retain it whether we leave it to him or not. … Happy work is best done by the (person) who takes his/her long-term view somewhat lightly  and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”

” Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that they may go to dinner parties, even dinner parties given by pagans. … Under the aegis of his church and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution to this paradox is, of course, well known to you . ‘Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do , do all to the glory of God.'”

One thing I noticed in the interviews with survivors of 9/11 is that they did not stop living. Nor were they living in fear. The were determined not to be defeated by the threat of terrorism. They embraced the gift of life.

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

Is God Judging America?

I have heard the question raised, “Is God judging America for our national sins? How else are we to explain natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and plagues?” I do not know how to answer that question other than to turn to scripture, which is the final authority.

What comes to mind is Abraham’s intercession for the city of Sodom. Genesis 18:20-33 records how the Lord met with Abraham on his way to investigate the grievous sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham proceeded to negotiate with the Lord on behalf of any righteous people he might find in Sodom: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”

What about fifty? Forty-five? Will you spare the city if you can find forty righteous people? What about thirty? Twenty? Then Abraham reached out in audacious faith, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

The Lord agreed to withhold judgment for the sake of ten righteous people if they could be found in Sodom. “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Unfortunately, there were not even ten and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire.

This true story teaches . . .

  1. God is holy and his judgments are legitimate. Divine patience has a breaking point (Genesis 15:16). Abraham knew this as he was praying for Sodom, “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” Earlier events in Genesis reveal God’s willingness to exercise righteous judgment against entire civilizations.
  2. The Lord reveals his plans to his people. Just as he spoke to Abraham about what he intended to do, so he has given repeated warnings in scripture for us to read today. I think that is why God-fearing people suspect strongly that God is acting in judgment, warning our nation about the consequences of sin. The danger to America is only going to get worse if we do not repent in humility before God.
  3. God’s people are called to pray for the nation (Jeremiah 29:7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3). Abraham was convinced there were righteous people in Sodom, and so he appealed for the city on the basis of God’s justice. Those who were connected to the Lord by faith, as Abraham was, were considered “righteous” throughout the Old Testament. Those who rejected the will and word of God were called “wicked.”
  4. The implication in Abraham’s prayer and the Lord’s response is that the righteous remnant have a preserving effect upon society. They do this by living righteously and teaching their children to do the same (v. 19).
  5. God’s judgment of Sodom teaches us that social evils bring social consequences. Entire populations suffer for the evils that are tolerated by a society.
  6. God is willing to withhold judgment. The God of justice is also a God of mercy. He always does what is right. If he judges a nation for its hubris and arrogant unbelief, he is just. If he withholds judgment, for the sake of a believing remnant, he is just. If he rescues that remnant just before judgment falls, he is just.
  7. The righteous will ultimately be saved. The twin themes of Genesis 19 are destruction and deliverance. Lot was rescued just ahead of the destruction that fell upon his city. The fact that a man of Lot’s dubious character would be delivered, magnifies the grace of God in the rescue of sinners (2 Peter 2:7-9).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

A Healing Puzzlement

Reading about the travels and earthly works of Jesus in the gospel of Mark has me puzzling over several details. Why did the Lord Jesus tell people not to spread the word about his healing miracles? Why did he heal comparatively few people when there were so many more who desired healing? Why did he compel his disciples to get into a boat to cross the Lake of Galilee when he knew perfectly well that a dangerous storm was brewing? What happened to the demons he cast out of people?

There are good answers to these questions, and some of them may be found in commentaries. But it is noteworthy that sometime the scholars skip right over the questions I would ask.

One such question occurred to me recently as I read Mark 7:33.  Jesus was asked to attend to the needs of a man who was deaf and speech-impaired. The verse says that Jesus took him aside. I get that. He was showing this disabled man that he had the Lord’s undivided attention. He cared about the individual.

Then the verse says he put his fingers into the man’s ears. Well, that makes sense too. The Lord was using physical touch to convey his awareness of where the problem lay and that he was doing something about it.

He sighed deeply. I don’t think this implies he had any difficulty healing the man. It shows that he was moved with compassion and empathy for the man’s predicament.

Then Jesus looked up toward heaven. This must have been a signal to the man that he was invoking the power of God. God had created this man and God knew about his problem. Jesus’ upward look was an indication to the patient that his help was from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Jesus spoke the healing word: “Ephphatha!” It was a command in the Aramaic language to the man’s senses to “to be opened!” Verse 34 says, “At this, the man’s ears were opened and his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.” 

But there is another detail, one that I do not fully understand. (Apparently the scholars do not either because many of them prefer to leave it unmentioned.) We read that Jesus did a strange thing. “He spit and touched the man’s tongue.” Spit? What did this have to do with healing?

Any suggestion I might give is speculative. Did the Lord want to impart something from his human DNA? This physical manifestation certainly undermines the Gnostic denial of our Lord’s full humanity.

Was he demonstrating that he, and he alone, was the one doing the healing? This healing came only through him, by the power of God. He, the Lord Jesus, transferred spittle from his own tongue to the tongue of the speechless man. Did this physical gesture signify that a physical healing was about to happen?

Another possibility has been suggested. Spittle was considered in ancient times to have healing properties. Now the Lord was certainly not imitating the practices of Egyptian and Babylonian sorcerers! But could it be that he was so fully entering the man’s cultural context that he was willing to use a means that was not unexpected in that day and time, because it had meaning for the patient himself?

This is not the only time Jesus used spit in a healing. In Mark 8:23 he put his spittle on the eyes of a blind man as he healed him. In John 9:6 he made a paste with mud and spittle and applied it as a poultice to the eyes of a blind man. What seems strange and unfamiliar to us, may have been familiar to the people of Jesus’ day. I remain puzzled.

Of these facts I am more certain. Jesus really did heal the man. The circumstances of the healing reveal his compassion, his power, his willingness, and his humility. The story also reveals to us one more convincing evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah sent from God. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the coming of Messiah:

“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

 

 

 

Intimations of Mortality

I am not sure why, but the words to a famous nineteenth-century hymn have been spinning around in my head for several days.

“When ends life’s transient dream/ when death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;/ blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;/ O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!” (“My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” by Ray Palmer)

I have been asking myself, “Why this sudden preoccupation with death? Where is this coming from?”

Maybe it is the repeated images on TV news: hospital ICUs crowded again with patients struggling against the resurgence of COVID-19 and the daily reports of the number of COVID-related deaths.

It may be the recent death of the young son of a friend of mine who died under tragic circumstances. His passing has been on my mind a lot as I have prayed for his family in their anguish.

Or it may be because I just had my 75th birthday and I realize the distance to the finish line is getting closer by the day.

I rather think it is because I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the persistent themes in this ancient book is the fact that life is short and death is inevitable. This is not a morbid thought. Nor is it pessimistic. It is realistic. It is the inspired wisdom of God.

The writer says: “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. . . . The same destiny overtakes all . . . and afterward they join the dead. . . . For the living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6).

This is, of course, the language of appearance. It is how things seem to be to limited human experience. The author of Ecclesiastes is not commenting on life after death. For the exposition of that glorious theme we must fast forward to the New Testament. Here he is taking a somber look at life “under the sun.” In a hundred years the majority of us will have been forgotten (v.5).

What happens at the time of death is worth pondering. The writer asks, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward, and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth”(Ecclesiastes 3:21)? On our own we cannot know. Yes, God has put “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). This is the universal hope for immortality. But who can know apart from a revelation from God?

The writer of Ecclesiastes answers his own question: “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to the God who gave it” (12:7). This is an intimation, a hint of continued existence with God after death. These words of wisdom were “given by one Shepherd” (12:11). The writer is conscious that he was inspired by God to write about the destiny of the sprit of believers at death. “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1).

Ecclesiastes says the prospect of death produces one of two responses. On the one hand there are those who say, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” On the other hand there are those who “fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it be good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

The book of Ecclesiastes  teaches us to live life to the fullest as long as we have life, to enjoy it while we can. “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). This life-affirming word is a reminder that the blessings of life are to be enjoyed as gifts from God: food and drink, love and marriage, vocation and purpose (vv. 8-10). We should not let the fear of death hover over us like a dreaded specter.

Those who are in Christ can look death in the eye without fear. Jesus takes away the fear of death because he has broken the power of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I have attended several funerals lately. Every funeral I attend is a reminder of my own mortality. But my faith is in Jesus the Savior. So, I can be sure that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Pastor Randy Faulkner