Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Blessing Shared

Twelve years ago Stefan and Birgit joined us for three years at Highbury and did an immense amount of ministry work with us, helping us as we began our focus on work with families and children.  Stefan completed his PhD in Old Testament studies at the University with Gordon Wenham and he and Birgit returned home to Marburg in Germany.

It wasn't long before they felt they wanted to share their gifts in service to God in Brazil.  After a lot of heartache and a lot of hard work that included a short spell in southern Brazil, they eventually were able to settle in to a permanent post at the South Ameerican Theological Seminary in Rolandia in Brazil.  For the last four years Stefan has been teaching biblical studies and helping in the theological education of pastors and ministers from the churches of Brazil both in class and on the internet.  Birgit has been working in a drug rehabilitation project and as a language teacher too.

After four years they have returned home to Marburg for six months leave and this weekend have joined us at Highbury.  After the morning service was over I took the opportunity to share with Stefan some reflections  about our very special day together ...

Here are Stefan's notes ...

Topic: From the individual to the many

Purpose: Coming from the presentation of our work leading the listeners to recognise the divine possibility of using each and every small beginning they might be able to offer toward a concrete implementation of the Missio Dei (anticipation)

From the one to the many

From the one to the many - that is God's principle, when we start to observe how he is implementing his great project for humanity. To know about this principle is encouraging in all kinds of ways.

There once was a rabbi (Bereshit Rabbah about 300 AD.) writing a commentary on the biblical book Genesis. This Rabbi put the following words in God's mouth: "I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." This little phrase makes a very interesting point and reflects the biblical text quite well.

Obviously the thing that went wrong with Adam is mankind – God's plan with us went wrong. That Adam, that humanity did not work out well is so apparent that we can see it every day in our society, in our families, and – if we are honest – in ourselves. We humans are certainly not as God intended us to be or even imagined us to be at the beginning.

According to our Rabbi God's answer to this failure of Adam was Abraham. What this might imply for us today shall be the question for the next few minutes.

In Gen 12 we read : " 
1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Well, these are the words the biblical text chooses to describe how Abraham is chosen by God. This very act of choosing one singular person comes almost as a shock after the chapters just before our text in the Genesis story. There is the narrative of the Tower of Babel. There it was about all the earth, now it's about one family. There is the Table of Nations, a list of 70 nations (which clearly is the biblical number of fullness), now it is all about just one little family. From the international stage down to a single man.

Let us remember our rabbi: "I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out."
Does this mean that God has hereby given up all the other nations? In fact, some people read the Old Testament that way: as if from now on everything would only focus on Israel. This would be the case until Jesus (or perhaps even until St. Paul) again widen the horizon to include non-Jews. Who reads the OT this way did not understand very much.

Even if the biblical text now completely focuses on one man and his immediate family, God never lost sight of all the other nations. However, it is not as with Noah, when his descendants replaced the entire world's population.

Read the text again: Abraham is called to bring blessing to all nations. When God singles someone out, when God blesses someone in a special way, he does it only for the benefit of others. Or perhaps one should rather say: when God blesses someone he does so for the benefit of all. God's blessing is never a bonus which I can enjoy in complete privacy. God's blessing is always linked to the fact, that God wants to bless others through me.

From now on blessing is the keyword for the unfolding story in Genesis. Especially Jacob was the one by whom the blessing of God to the nations began to take shape (Laban 30:27 and Potiphar 39:9). At the end of Jacob's life, it is none other than the Pharaoh who is blessed by the dying patriarch (47:7 "And Joseph brought in Jacob, his father, and had him stand before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.").

"I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." Abraham was just one, in fact quite an old man chosen by God, but he was called having in mind the huge horizon of all mankind.
If we now remember the subsequent history of the family of this man and the people, that came from him, we may be able to think of the odd glimmer of hope, but by and large this history of Israel bringing divine 
blessing to others was a failure. I think this has been summarised quite well by the book of Jonah: Israel is the chosen people but it is stubborn and selfish and is not even prepared to do as they have been asked. And in the end they are even offended when there is not enough shade to sit in.

Interestingly the Bible keeps repeating the same basic idea: God always begins with an individual or a small group while he has all of humanity in mind.

First it was Abraham, then it was the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, then it was Jesus of Nazareth. Or was it was the mother of Samuel, or Ruth and her mother in law, or queen Esther and her uncle, or the 12 disciples. Even the biblical examples are difficult to count.

God begins with an individual, while he has all of humanity in mind. Of course, the outstanding individual in the history was Jesus Christ - but who really knew this Jesus who lived in a remote, rural area of the Roman Empire? In this sense, Jesus was rather "insignificant" as a beginning.

Then there was a group of today unknown Christians in the 2nd century who took upon themselves the care of the sick in a small suburb of ancient Rome. Then there were the monks in the Middle Ages, who cared for the poor. Then there was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Then there was an elderly lady called Ilse in our church who took care of the youth club in which I made my first conscious steps as a Christian.

Today there is you. Today there is this church here, Cheltenham Congregational Church.

God always begins with an individual or a small group while he has all of humanity in mind. We need to keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not an evolutionary, ever  growing project of getting this world to be a better place. In the end God's reign does not move forward to be a unifying mega church, in which we all sing the same songs (whether they are in Latin or English or Portuguese). Even using modern mass media such as television or Facebook, we cannot make a globalised church.

This is so mainly because a globalised mega church never was God's purpose.

It's true, God's blessing has a global direction, but it always starts out from an individual or a small group. God wants to reach all and bless all, but does not want to do so in an impersonal and nonspecific manner. God's global goal is not globalisation à la Coca-Cola, where at the end everyone is drinking the same. Because of this, every single one who is here today is so important in God's plan. Because of this every effort to be nice and helpful person is important. Because of this your commitment to justice is important. Or your prayers for this one wild teenager. God will always start on a small scale – we should leave it to him what he may make of it later on.

I am sure that all of us here today can remember the one or the other who had been a blessing for them. Or you may have tried to be a blessing for someone else, through prayer or a word of encouragement or a helping hand. Maybe this one person has now gone far away to live in another city. But there he lives with Jesus and is a bright light for many others. This would be just another one of these new beginnings. This would be another example of how God likes to work and pass on his blessing to others.

There was your little investment, only very small yet important. Who knows what God is going to develop from it? God has a global vision, but he needs our local and individual efforts, so someone else may be blessed.

He has called you, so that you, your ideas, your relationships may become the means by which God is moving one step further towards his goal of globalisation, namely that in Jesus God's blessing is available for all.

"I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." When things go wrong with the human race, then God calls an individual, someone like you.

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