The entire Bible in 5 weeks: First act turn; or, Abram the warlord

Note: This is part 2 of 5 in a series looking at the overall story of God’s plan, or redemptive history, as told across the breadth of Scripture and ancient Near East history. I am preaching this series as the beginning of my time serving as pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas, and will be posting a blog version the following week. Click here for week 1.

Photo by Farooq Naeem http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/washington/30tribal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Photo by Farooq Naeem
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/washington/30tribal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Warlord. He haunts the untamed interior of Africa and the mountains of Central Asia. Surrounded by stolen goods, captured humans, and the stern faces of sworn men, he is his own law among anarchy and lawlessness. He is Legion, motivating our youth to plead on behalf of Africa and confounding our leaders’ attempts to apprehend their enemies. He is romanticized and vilified. Though sometimes ally, he is never loved. And he was picked by God as the beginning of the plan to reunite God and humanity.

As we look at the overall story of the Bible, we have a setting (reality since the dawn of Creation) and we have a protagonist (God). Though the characters over whom we obsess come and go, it is God’s agency moving the story forward. Unfortunately, we also have a problem for the protagonist to overcome: humanity and God are disconnected. Created good and beautiful to bear God’s image, we have fallen under the weight of our own hubris. This first act turndisconnect is often referred to as sin. Rather leaving us to languish in this state, God still wants to be in community with us. And like any story, this story hinges on the first act turn, the moment the protagonist sets out to face the problem.

We find this moment in Genesis 12, when God reaches out to a man named Abram. God instructs Abram to leave his father’s household and land in order to travel to a land God will show to him. God promises to make the childless man into a great nation, a nation which will be a blessing to the entire world. The profundity of this moment cannot be overstated. God has reached out to fallen humanity, establishing covenant and community with one man, while already hinting at so much more to come. Every act of God’s mercy to come finds roots in this relationship. Every story of redemption. Every seed of faith grown into life-giving fruit.

And it all started with a Middle Eastern tribal warlord. Not the simple, cute, grandfatherly Abram/Abraham our children color in Sunday School, but a morally complicated man fully a product of his nomadic culture. I have become increasingly convinced this is the best way to describe the patriarch to today’s Western culture, particularly as the tribal warlord description has grabbed increasing airtime post-9/11. Abram, not the simple subsistence nomad we imagine, acquires possessions and people as he goes. He gains audiences with royalty. They grant him mercy and order their men to respect his wife rather than simply kill him for his lying. His camp numbers in the hundreds, even thousands, given that it is large enough to contain 318 trained fighters. This force is strong enough and disciplined enough to pursue, ambush, and route a multinational allied force. Simply put, God began His plan to reach out to fallen humanity by entering into a covenant with a tribal warlord.

While the very fact that God set out in this story is worthy of reflection and awe, the way in which He did it merits study as well and should have a significant impact on our lives and faith. When I look at God’s call of Abram, I hear three questions calling out from the text.

Are you okay with God not telling you all of the story just yet? Abram is told where to go, promised a legacy, receives a hint about it affecting other nations for the better…and that’s about it. No explanation of how to get a camp as big as his to travel that far, no promises of food for Abram’s followers, no instructions on what to do when he arrives, no suggestions on how to break the news to his family (both the family going with him and the family staying behind, a family that had been impacted by the death of his brother). And yet Abram goes. We unfortunately have no details on Abram’s thought process, but we do know that he decided to join God in His story, trusting that God’s story was better than anything he could write. Which is a great segue to…

Are you willing to say no to a great story in order to say yes to a great story? Abram was no slouch. He isn’t struggling in Harran when God calls him. We can infer some success from the later descriptions of his power. It’s hard to imagine Abram just falling backwards into a massive following while in transit to Canaan. But much more telling is what is said of Abram’s departure from Harran. We are told he set out with all the possessions and people he had acquired in Harran. Abram seems to have been doing very well for himself right when God tells him to turn in his resignation, break his lease, and set out without any backup plan. The idea of answering an unexpected from God to leave sounds a lot more enticing when it means you’re leaving a bad situation, a deadend job, a leaky apartment, or a place you haven’t put down roots. But what about when God says good enough isn’t good enough? If you’re in a place where things seem good but God has told you to get moving, be encouraged. You’ll risk a lot, you might lose a lot, you might not recover materially, but it’ll be worth it. The story of our redemption began with the same kind of risk.

Are you okay with who God includes in His story? Grandfatherly Noah and Abraham, shepherd/songwriter David, and friendly Jesus implicitly give us their approval to exclude those who don’t look like us, dress like us, or sin like us. But what about drunk Noah, Abram the warlord, David the adulterer/murderer, and Jesus the radical dissident who spends time with sinners like them? Here’s yet another reason why the story of Scripture is so important: if we tell it how we want it, we can use it to confirm our tastes. We can make heroes out of the broken humans on whom God, the real hero, showers mercy and invites into His story. We whitewash their sins and forget why its such a big deal God loves them. But when we honestly look at who they are and who God is, it should remind us that none of our so-called enemies are any worse, it should remind us that we’re no better, and it should remind us that God reaches out to us all. If God started the redemption story with a warlord, we need a radical shift in how we think about those the United States tells us to hate. And when the tribal warlord, the adulterer, or even the lazy coworker in the next cubicle hears the call of God, we need to welcome them into the story God is telling.

-Geoff Davidson

The entire Bible in 5 weeks: First act turn; or, Abram the warlord

The entire Bible in 5 weeks: Setting

settingNote: This is part 1 of 5 in a series looking at the overall story of God’s plan, or redemptive history, as told across the breadth of Scripture and ancient Near East history. I am preaching this series as the beginning of my time serving as pastor of Foundation Baptist Church in Rosebud, Texas, and will be posting a blog version the following week.

Have you ever experienced a blinding epiphany that permanently changes how you look at something? Maybe your eyes widen. Maybe you freeze in place. Your brain races between feeling smart enough to see it and feeling dumb enough to have not seen it before. I remember one such moment early in my seminary experience. I believed in a God who had a plan, who was involved in yet beyond our sense of time and worked accordingly. But history and Scripture, other than individual moments of radiant providence, seemed a bit helter-skelter. That is, until professors and resources pointed me to the overall story of God’s grace. For the first time I saw one cohesive story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with God as both author and protagonist. Since then I’ve been increasingly convicted by our tendency to teach the Bible as a book of fables, loosely connected stories that each end with a cute, moralistic nugget to guide our day. We get lost in a seeming oddity of God’s actions in one story. We get hung up on the moral failures of the humans we’ve turned into main characters. But what if these stories are just the smallest details in a much grander narrative?

All stories, whether they cover mere minutes or millennia, share certain things in common. If you grew up like I did, you had this burnt into your retinas during grade school using the plot graph method. The first point on the graph, the beginning of the story, gives us our setting. Where, when, who. Some authors are a bit more vague about their setting early on, but Scripture makes it pretty easy. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So, God’s story starts at the very beginning and takes places in our reality. But who is in the story?

Scripture tells us that God made humanity in His image, a status unique across Creation. But the man was alone. And God, before any of our failures, saw his loneliness and expressed disapproval for the very first time in Scripture. I believe that’s very telling. Human community is that important to God, because it’s that important to how he designed us. Notice, when God created the first human community, we were yet to fall. Human community is not a crutch that we may limp through our fallenness; it is part of God’s perfect design for us. And if the story ends with a return to perfection, it will include a return to perfect human community.

Surely God immediately remedied the situation, right? Take a look at Genesis 2:18-20. In one of those details those of us who grew up around the Bible often fly right over, God first shows the animal kingdom to their steward…and none of them were suitable to be the man’s helper (a term also used of God elsewhere). Did God catch just forget about His community project and come back to it after the zoo parade? Of course not. I believe there’s a critical lesson in this narrative order: only human beings will fulfill that God-given need for human community. Adam had animals; we recreation, work, and 7 billion people we don’t actually no strung together across broadband and 3G. But among the corporations and smartphones a suitable helper cannot be found.

If you’re keeping score on any 4th grade worksheets you have lying around, we have the where, when, and who of our setting lined out. And all too soon we’ll have the problem or conflict. Story always has conflict, something the protagonist works to overcome. In God’s story that problem is humanity’s broken relationship with God. Sin has damaged our connection to our Creator, and immediately took down human community with it. Selfishness, greed, theft, murder, sexual violence, war, all symptoms of our broken community with God and each other. But God, like any protagonist who can keep us glued to page or screen, won’t sit idly by as destruction reigns. Next week, we’ll be looking at the moment God sets out to overcome our brokenness and restore community.

-Geoff Davidson

The entire Bible in 5 weeks: Setting