THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
Most of us, I assume, would love to learn how to read and study Holy Scripture better: I know I would. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a guide? Someone a bit more learned, wise, and knowledgeable than we are to walk us through the biblical text, to point out and explain all the wonder and mystery that lie within? Wouldn’t it be great if in wrestling with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah St. Phillip would appear as he did to the Ethiopian? One equipped to reveal the true meaning of the Scriptures.
I submit that God has generously provided these guides in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers of the Church. Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose... the list goes on and on. I encourage you to not merely read these Fathers, but learn from them; study not only what they say about Holy Scripture, but discover how they read the Bible to arrive at such wisdom. In fact, the main objective for this Summer’s sermon series is to learn how to read the scriptures sacramentally, or spiritually through the lens of Jesus Christ as the one who unlocks the meaning of the Old Testament; looking to discover Christ who is the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament.
The Church fathers made no distinction between visible and invisible things. They held to a worldview and metaphysic that allowed for both realities to co-exist, and more importantly, to co-inhere: the one participating in the other. In other words, they weren’t secularists. They had no conception of a reality in which the transcendent and unseen are entirely separated from the material and seen. In fact, the second-century theologian Origen of Alexandria maintained that “the earthly scene contains certain patterns of heavenly things.” What he meant is that natural phenomenon, the seen and experienced, is that by which one comes to contemplate heavenly things. For instance, take the rising of the sun... does it not bring to mind a daily reminder of the resurrection of Christ and the remembrance of our future bodily resurrection into glory?
You see, Origen, along with the consensus of the early church, found (as they did in natural revelation) Divine and heavenly patterns revealed in the Old Testament as they paid close attention to the text. Origen believed that one could move from the letter of Scripture to the spirit of the text, discovering within the letter, heavenly patterns that bring forth the fullest meaning of Biblical revelation. Through these heavenly patterns found in Scripture, one moves beyond the seen to the unseen, and there, in the spiritual understanding of the Bible one discovers a more excellent knowledge of God (not merely an accounting of his historical acts) but a more profound revelation of the divine nature and character.
Consider the book of Genesis which we have been contemplating over these first several weeks of Trinity-tide. In Genesis, right from the very start, we see the divine pattern creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, and restoration. “In the beginning…” writes Moses, “God created the heavens and earth.” From nothing, the Lord brought forth everything. Next, we see God on the seventh day of creation blessing everything he has made, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Gen 1:28). Creation and blessing. Though having been blessed God’s children rebel, willfully disobeying God and in doing so, fall from grace. This results in bringing judgment upon themselves: Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment. But the divine pattern always includes restoration: salvation, redemption, and life.
This heavenly pattern is perceived in the very first chapters of the Old Testament. Instead of destroying Adam and Eve (which God was justified to do) he removes them from further harm by expelling them from the Garden, clothes their shame with animal skins, and proclaims a promise to reverse the curse brought upon them and their posterity. Amid divine judgment, God pronounces a restorative promise saying to the wicked serpent “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between his seed and her seed. He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:17). In other words, from the seed of a woman, a man will be born who will crush the head of the serpent with one mighty blow. Creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, restoration, and promise.
The story of Noah follows the same pattern. Through Adam and Eve, God created a multitude of people who multiply and fill the earth. But once again, humanity rebels. God looks upon the human family and sees that their wickedness is great in the earth and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is evil continually and it deeply grieves his heart (Gen 6:5-6). And in keeping with the divine pattern, their rebellion brings flood-waters of judgment, baptizing creation and washing clean the face of the world. Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment. But the Lord wills to restore the human family, to recreate a new people for himself, a human family who will love and worship him with one voice and one heart.
By the Ark, Noah and his family are saved from judgment and brought forth upon the dry ground. And there, standing upon the new creation, God blessed Noah and his sons, saying, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen 9:1). The Adamic command of God will be accomplished through Noah. And to Noah, God promised to never again destroy the earth by flood and seals this covenant promise with the sign of the rainbow; forever reminding Noah that the peace of God will always accompany his obedience. Creation, blessing, rebellion, judgment, restoration, and promise.
Last Sunday’s Old Testament reading introduced a new story with the calling of Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, which must not be detached from the biblical events of chapter eleven and the story of the Tower of Babel. Once again, humanity rebels against God and the Adamic-Noahic command to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth. Instead, the human family consolidates in the land of Shinar and builds a magnificent tower as a monument of human achievement and as you can already guess, bring judgment upon themselves in the form of confusion and separation; God comes down and fractures their common language into a million different tongues. This confusion of language creates misunderstanding; misunderstanding leads to division, and division leads to scattering. Creation, blessing, rebellion, and judgment.
But then we turn the page and immediately read in the opening verses of chapter twelve, “Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and thou shalt be a blessing... in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). Restoration. God will remake a people for himself through Abraham: “I will make of thee a great nation.” Restoration is always accompanied by the promise of God. “And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Restoration and promise.
The divine, heavenly pattern reveals the God of the Bible as the God who creates. He speaks things into existence as he did at the dawn of creation, his very breath animating dust from whence came man. The pattern also reveals him to be the one who blesses everything he creates because he loves what he makes. He blesses Adam, Noah, and Abraham, and by this shows his great love and concern. The same God is God of judgment but also the God of restoration: he produces good from evil, hope from despair, and life from death.
You see, He is the one who determines to fix that which man breaks, to reverse misfortune, and restore that which is lost. We see this time and time again in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and many more. He is the restorer because he is love, the divine Initiator of every good, and the author of salvation. “We love because He first loved us,” writes the beloved Apostle. In mercy, God sets and determines the Divine pattern of redemption. And he seals this pattern with a promise, not an ordinary promise, or an aspirational one, but by covenant: he seals redemptive promises with the surety of divine covenant. As it was with Adam and Noah, so it is with Abraham.
From today’s Old Testament lesson we read, “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying… I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Gen 17:1-8).”
First, notice that the covenantal promise of God came to the righteous Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old. Now, think back to chapter fifteen, when the Lord first pronounced this covenant promise of a child from which the nations of the earth would be blessed, at that time, Abraham was eighty-seven years old, and his wife Sarai was barren. How on earth would God fulfill such an outlandish promise? Well, Abraham and his wife took things into their own hands, they didn’t trust God’s ability to deliver. So Sarai gave Hagar to her husband, and she conceived a son named Ishmael.
Fast forward… “Abraham was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.” Abraham didn’t trust God, and so the divine promise was delayed thirteen long years. But God didn’t abandon his commitment, he came back to Abraham. Friends, let us not despair and lose heart when the promises of God delay. Instead, let us trust Him even more, and await with joyful expectation for promise-keeping God to act.
Now, we mustn’t overlook a significant difference between God’s restating of the covenant promise here in chapter seventeen and its first pronouncement in chapter fifteen. Here in chapter seventeen, God says, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” I will establish an everlasting covenant; an eternal promise. This is new. This is different. God says, what I promise today I will seal by my oath forever. I will not rescind it, neither will anything ever erase this promise I make with thee Abraham and your descendants. Who can bind or loose eternally? Who can claim such incredible promises? None other but the Lord Almighty.
“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram and said unto him, I am the Almighty God.” El Shaddai, the name that discloses Him to be the almighty and all-powerful God. It is not by happenstance or coincidence that the first time we encounter this name for God in Scripture is found here in Genesis seventeen at the ratification of the Abrahamic covenant. For it is the Almighty One (El Shaddai) who will achieve the promise. The All-powerful God is the only one who can and will bring forth from Sarah’s barren womb the child of promise. “And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.” Divine power, El Shaddai, will bring forth the promised seed and in him, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. Restoration and promise.
And here, right here in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis, in the explicit promise of God, we discover Christ. He is the child of promise. The promised seed in Genesis chapter three, the One born of a woman to crush satan under his heel. Christ is the very reason why God commanded Adam, and Noah, and Abraham to multiply and fill the earth, that from their posterity, a son would be born in the obscure little town of Bethlehem. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). The seed of promise, born not of man, but by Divine will, like Isaac before him, Jesus the promised seed was born by the almighty power of El Shaddai, the Lord God Almighty.
In Jesus Christ, God’s promises to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are kept and fulfilled. Because Jesus lived in complete and perfect faithfulness to the covenant. He never wavered from the will of God, nor did he transgress his commands. He was the perfect man, is the perfect man, the faithful Israelite, the faithful son. And how do we know this? Because the Father vindicated him. He did not leave his son in the lower depths of Hades, forever strangled by death’s grip. On the third day, the Almighty and Powerful God raise his beloved son from the grave immortal an uncorrupted.
The perfect, holy life of Christ received its due reward: resurrection and eternal life. He crushed Satan’s head. And in Him are all the nations of the earth blessed. He is the progenitor of an ever-increasing family as countless as the stars, made of every tongue, tribe, and nation. He is the fulfillment of the promise El Shaddai made to Abraham all those many, many years ago. And we, beloved, are living proof of God’s promise-keeping faithfulness. For who are the children of Abraham? Hear the words of St. Paul, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith”” (Gal 3:7-9).
God swore to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee... And I will be their God.” Beloved, hear the clarion call of the Gospel from the Old Testament: the covenant-keeping God of Abraham is our God as well. This God promises, by covenant, to be our God. He, his very self, is the great covenantal prize. Not what he does, not what he says, but Himself.
This God has revealed himself to us in Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: he is not merely with us but in us his church. His almighty and powerful presence, the same spirit says St. Paul, ““which raised Christ from the dead, the same spirit that brought us from death to life (Rom 8:11). El Shaddai has raised you. El Shaddai is with you. This is the God who makes and keeps promises, the God in whom we can entrust all our sorrows and difficulties of this present life and the God of a sure and future hope: friends, we will not die, but will be raised on the last day. We will not be a godless people, for God will finally and completely be our God.
To St. John, the almighty God, gave this glimpse of assurance, that we too might be assured in the storms of this life, listen “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.” Restoration, promise, and fulfillment. He is and will be our God. Amen+