The Blessing (Genesis 17:15-22)

By American artist Julie Lonneman

God said to Abraham, “Don’t call your wife by the name Sarai anymore. Instead, her name is Sarah [Princess]. I will bless her, and I will also give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she will become a mother of nations, and kings will come from her.” Immediately, Abraham bowed with his face touching the ground. He laughed as he thought to himself, “Can a son be born to a hundred-year-old man? Can Sarah, a ninety-year-old woman, have a child?” Then Abraham said to God, “Why not let Ishmael be my heir?”

God replied, “No! Your wife Sarah will give you a son, and you will name him Isaac [He Laughs]. I will make an everlasting promise to him and his descendants. I have heard your request about Ishmael. Yes, I will bless him, make him fertile, and increase the number of his descendants. He will be the father of 12 princes, and I will make him a great nation. But I will make my promise to Isaac. Sarah will give birth to him at this time next year.” When God finished speaking with Abraham, he left him. (God’s Word Translation)

Life can only be lived with faith. We all believe in something, in someone. It’s just a matter of what or whom we place our faith in. Whomever we direct our faith, that is where we give our allegiance and obedience.

As for Abraham and his wife Sarah, they had their faith in the God who called them from Ur of the Chaldees. They demonstrated their belief by doing exactly what the Lord said to do – they went West to the land God would show them. (Genesis 12:1-5)

Abraham and Sarah listened to God and acted accordingly.

I don’t want to cross over into TMI territory (Too Much Information) yet I want us to consider what had to take place when the Lord tells the old couple they will have a baby next year. Here’s where the faith and action comes in: It is highly unlikely that a 100-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman were sexually active. But the Lord essentially told them to get going on conceiving a child. So, they did!

I can’t speak for Abraham and Sarah, but I know as a grandfather that I am really glad I don’t have to raise kids anymore. It makes me exhausted just thinking about it, at my age, so I’ve got to believe it crossed their minds, too. Maybe that’s why Abraham sort of pleaded with God to let Ishmael be the son of promise; the reality of being responsible for a newborn was maybe the last thing on old Abe’s mind.

But faith they had, as the New Testament attests:

Even when Sarah was too old to have children, she had faith that God would do what he had promised, and she had a son. Her husband Abraham was almost dead, but he became the ancestor of many people. In fact, there are as many of them as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand along the seashore. (Hebrews 11:11-12, CEV)

Genuine belief results in decisive action. At Abraham and Sarah’s age, sex may likely have seemed a safety hazard. Yet, they were submissive to God’s plan that divine promises would come through Isaac – who was indeed born the next year, just as the Lord said.

Abraham and Sarah by Marc Chagall, 1956

All this is consistent with the names “Abraham” and “Sarah.” Names were (and still are in most of the world) important identifiers of personal character – particularly toward what sort of person one would become.

God made a name change for the old couple. “Abram,” meaning “exalted father,” was changed to “Abraham,” “father of many nations.” “Sarai” was altered to “Sarah,” yet both names have the same meaning: “Princess.” (Genesis 17:3-8, 15-16)

The change of names was meant to communicate the promise of divine blessing from God for the future. All the world will be blessed through the covenant made with Abraham. Sarah’s alteration of name, though only in form and not substance, brought to the fore that Sarah, too, had a special purpose along with her husband in blessing the world.

Today, this blessing is still unfolding. Throughout all history, since the time of Abraham and Sarah over four millennia ago (c.2100 B.C.E.), the divine ripples of God’s covenant with them have moved across the earth.

Their progeny, through Isaac, the son of the promise, the Jewish people, continue to exist as arguably the most resilient group on the planet. We, especially Christians and Muslims, owe a great debt to the Jews for persevering in faith for such a long stretch of time. They have much to teach us, if we have ears to hear and hearts receptive.

Since the time of Christ, the blessing has extended well beyond the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah:

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised [Jews] or also for the uncircumcised [Gentiles]? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. 

So then, Abraham is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised….

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. 

Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:9-12, 16-25, NIV)

May you know the depth and breadth of your faith, that it stretches far beyond this time and place. And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you, now and forever. Amen.

The Time Is Ripe (Galatians 4:1-7)

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. (New International Version)

The three greatest persons in biblical history – Abraham, Moses, and Jesus – are connected. God entered into a covenant with Abraham and promised to bless everyone on the earth through his progeny. God gave Moses the Law as a sort of school teacher and guide, alongside Abraham’s covenant. God fulfilled the covenant promise in Jesus. Thus, everyone who is led and tutored toward Christ, inherits all of God’s promises.

Under the Law

The Apostle Paul, speaking to a group of new believers who were confused about the relation between the Law and Christ, helped them understand with a metaphor. It’s like a boy who is the heir to a great estate. Someday, it will all be his. But now, he’s too young to possess it. So, during his childhood, he’s subject to trustees who oversee the estate, and teachers who instruct him in how to actually use the wealth once he actually inherits it.

While the boy is in the middle of the guidance, he’s not in control of much, just like the servants on the estate. The child will remain in this state until his time comes, until the date in which his father says he can take possession of the inheritance.

Before Christ, people were under the Law. They were heirs to God’s great kingdom promises. Yet, they needed the Law to guide and instruct them until it was time for them to receive the inheritance. Much like a present day kid in school, they see themselves in a sort of bondage, even though it’s a necessary part of their lives.

It’s bondage in the sense that the Law, the schoolmaster, has no power or ability to give the inheritance nor to save them from their current condition. In other words, the Law is good, yet lacks the potency to actually deliver one from sin, death, and hell.

What’s more, the elemental spirits of the age, namely Satan and his wicked spirits, wormed their way into the process of guidance and twisted the Law for their own advantage, to keep people in bondage. Just as the guardian of the boy may mistreat him in ways his father never intended, so the devil has exploited the Law in order to have it be a tyrannical presence over people.

Whereas God intended the Law to reveal humanity’s sin and drive them to a Savior, evil uses the Law to shame people and drive them to despair. The Law was meant for good, to be a gracious leading of people to the Messiah; yet Satan co-opted the Law to bring condemnation to folks and keep them under his insidious thumb.

In Christ

But when the time was ripe, God sent the Son so that people would be done with their guardians and inherit divine promises. To use yet another metaphor, when the scaffolding on a building has served it’s intended purpose in construction, it’s taken down; it’s no longer needed. It would be weird if the shiny new building were erected, and the owner decided to keep the scaffolding beside the structure.

The Law of Moses had done its work of preparing people for Christ. So, God sent Jesus, the Son, to redeem humanity, to transform slaves into sons and daughters. The Lord adopted us and granted us full rights as children of the King.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.

Galatians 3:13, CEB

Jesus is uniquely qualified to be such a Redeemer of humanity. He is God’s Son, born of a human mother. Therefore, as both divine and human – the God Man – Jesus is the person for whom all the covenant promises of God have their fulfillment.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one through whom God created the universe, the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of God’s glory and is the exact likeness of God’s own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. After achieving forgiveness for the sins of all human beings, he sat down in heaven at the right side of God, the Supreme Power. (Hebrews 1:1-3, GNT)

In Christian trinitarian theology, God is Three in One, the Holy Trinity. God sent the Son into the world, of which believers celebrate the incarnation of Christ each year at Christmas. God sent the Spirit into our hearts; and from that place we cry “Abba! Father!” The Spirit testifies with our own spirit that we are truly adopted children of God. (Romans 8:15-16)

The Spirit is like the seal on a document, proving that our inheritance papers are all in order. And, much more than that, the Spirit also does this sealing work with affection. Christianity is not merely a legal transaction; it’s an experience of grace and love in which we enter into a new life, free from bondage, and alive to all the possibilities that humanity was originally meant for.

Both our status and our sensibilities are changed. It happens because of God’s good grace and purpose, fulfilled in Christ and impressed on us by the Spirit.


The French philosopher and writer, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), once said that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each person which needs to be filled:

“There was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace. This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées

If we want to find happiness, satisfaction, and goodwill, then the empty void within us creatures and within the systems and the cultures we create, needs to be filled with our Creator.

The Christian season of Advent is an appropriate time to reconnect with the infinite and the immutable. The time is ripe to be filled not only with love and goodness, but with the very source of Love itself.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Covenant Promises (2 Samuel 7:1-17)

Jerusalem. Photo by Anton Petrus

After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”

Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”

But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.

“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”

Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation. (New International Version)

What is a covenant?

A covenant is simply a contract or agreement between two or more parties. The Bible is a covenant document. The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants. The word “testament” is Latin for “covenant.” When God makes a covenant with people, it means they receive divine promises of what God will do; and, in response, the people have moral expectations or ethical responsibilities to follow. 

The ancient world operated on a covenant system. A nation or empire would conquer a city or territory and set up a covenant in which the conqueror promised protection, certain provisions, and left a military presence among them. In response, the conquered people were required to offer their allegiance and some of the goods and services of the land. 

God made a covenant with Abraham and promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. The only stipulation that God gave to Abraham was to leave and begin a new life in the land he would show him. (Genesis 12:1-3)

The Lord continued to work through Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites. They would be a kingdom of priests, testifying to the nations through a lifestyle of having God at the center of all they do. The people were expected to embody the Ten Commandments and be holy, thus reflecting the holiness of God.

The difference between earthly covenants and God’s covenant is that God saturates the divine covenant in love and grace – because the Lord cares about the divine/human relationship.

What do we learn about God through a covenant?

First and foremost: God never forgets nor reneges on divine promises. God was faithful to David by establishing a covenant, yet also spoke to him about his descendants. The Lord promised David a dynasty, a kingdom that would never end, a temple, and a father/son relationship with his progeny. 

Furthermore, God promised that divine love would never be taken away. The Lord shows continuous love to people, even when they go astray. Unlike the nations of the earth, the fickle nature of people, and the inconsistent commitment of others, God is a Being whose very nature is love.

In a world of broken families and severed relationships; of selfishness and trying to impose one’s will on another; of taking advantage of others; and in a world that is messed up and depraved because of sin and unfaithfulness, God stands as the consistent, never-changing Sovereign of Love who graciously blesses people. 

What sort of covenant is this?

Short answer: a covenant of grace. It’s demonstrated in how the tables are turned on David with grace. David intended on doing something for God. But the Lord completely turned it around and blessed him abundantly beyond what David could even ask or think. David had it in his heart to build a house for God, but God comes back and says that an enduring house (household and dynasty) will be built for David.

How does this covenant apply to Christians?

All the good and gracious promises given to Abraham, Moses, and David are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  

The New Testament Gospels are steeped in the language and explanation that Jesus is the Son of David, the Promised One, Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Healer. He will save the people from their sins and bring them to a spacious kingdom full of the grace and love. 

Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are brought into union with God and participate fully in all the promises of the New Covenant of love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. All this love is personified in Christ.

Where is the covenant?

The Davidic Covenant is not limited to a specific place or a building. God is present with people wherever they go. 

A common understanding in the ancient world was that there were local gods, not a universal God over all the earth. The Jews were unique in the belief that there is not one square inch of this entire earth where God is not present. The Lord does not need a permanent structure because God is everywhere. 

We, as New Covenant people, are God’s temple. The Lord takes up residence within our lives. We possess covenant loyalty and faithfulness, continually, in the person of the Holy Spirit.

What do we learn about ourselves?

Timing is important. David had a good idea and good motives for wanting to house the Ark of the Covenant in a temple. Yet, God let David know that the timing was off. So, David would need to be patient and let his vision of a temple come to fruition with his son. 

However, that didn’t mean David was idle. By the time he died, his son Solomon had most of the building materials already stockpiled and ready for the temple construction. Waiting does not necessarily mean passivity. 

A vision for life or for ministry rarely is implemented quickly. It needs to grow and mature before it will bear fruit. Two sage questions to ask, therefore, are:

  1. Is the future I am imagining, a future that God desires, or do I have my ladder leaning on the wrong building?
  2. If I am imagining a good and gracious future, is it the right time for it to happen? 

We also learn about ourselves that we must bank on the promises of God – and trust in the person and work of Jesus because all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. In Christ we are taught how to live, and by his wounds we are healed. Jesus is the hope of the world. 

There is grace to be found; forgiveness to be had; and dreams to be realized, if we are attentive to the promises given to us in Holy Scripture. Do not let your sanctified dreams die, because they might not yet have come to full term.

God’s direction for our lives is needed. We have responsibilities as God’s covenant people to be faithful and uphold the ethics of the kingdom, as expressed by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7)

Perhaps what we learn most about ourselves is to surrender our plans to God. My life is not all about me. Most of the Christian life is about weaning ourselves away from our own thoughts and ingenuity, learning to submit to God’s plans for our lives. We must pray and not make assumptions, because after a night of prayer, the prophet Nathan withdrew his building permit for David.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.

Psalm 127:1, NIV

The Lord is gracious, loving, and loyal to covenant promises. We are to live into what God is building on this earth: an ethical kingdom with people characterized by mercy, purity, and peace-making. 

Soli Deo Gloria.

Take the Path of Peace (Zechariah 1:1-17)

Michelangelo’s depiction of the prophet Zechariah, Sistine Chapel, Rome

In the eighth month of the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo:

“The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Turn from your evil ways and your evil practices.’ But they would not listen or pay attention to me, declares the Lord. Where are your ancestors now? And the prophets, do they live forever? But did not my words and my decrees, which I commanded my servants the prophets, overtake your ancestors?

“Then they repented and said, ‘The Lord Almighty has done to us what our ways and practices deserve, just as he determined to do.’”

On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berekiah, the son of Iddo.

During the night I had a vision, and there before me was a man mounted on a red horse. He was standing among the myrtle trees in a ravine. Behind him were red, brown and white horses.

I asked, “What are these, my lord?”

The angel who was talking with me answered, “I will show you what they are.”

Then the man standing among the myrtle trees explained, “They are the ones the Lord has sent to go throughout the earth.”

And they reported to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have gone throughout the earth and found the whole world at rest and in peace.”

Then the angel of the Lord said, “Lord Almighty, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and from the towns of Judah, which you have been angry with these seventy years?” So the Lord spoke kind and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.

Then the angel who was speaking to me said, “Proclaim this word: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I am very jealous for Jerusalem and Zion, and I am very angry with the nations that feel secure. I was only a little angry, but they went too far with the punishment.’

“Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the Lord Almighty.

“Proclaim further: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’” (New International Version)

God hulking-out isn’t something you want to see repeated, insisted the prophet.

Zechariah directed his message to the Jews returning from their exile in Babylon. He reminded them that their parents and forebears had been called to repent and return to the Lord. They didn’t. Hence, the Babylonian exile. Big hint from the prophet to the people: Don’t ever do that again. Things will get angry, large, and green if you do.

Zechariah’s generation was being given a chance: To live into God’s covenant and law; to hold fast onto their identity as God’s people.

The people listened to the prophet. They expressed their repentance and a desire to turn from past evil ways and embrace the ways of the Lord. And the returning exiles also acknowledged and accepted God’s judgment. The returning exiles understood that, as a people, they deserve the consequences to centuries of neglecting justice, mercy, and humility.

Every generation of believers must learn from the past. Not only do they need to receive the teachings and traditions of those who went before them, but each generation must also struggle with how to put that teaching and tradition into practice.

The past needs to be squarely faced and deliberately pulled into the present. That is the way a genuine hope is born, giving direction for the future. In other words, old words and ways from the past need new experiences in the present; only by doing this will there be guidance.

Bring in your kingdom so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. (Matthew 6:10, CEB)

Today’s Old Testament lesson includes the first of eight night visions from the prophet Zechariah. The gist of the first prophetic oracle is a message of assurance and comfort: God will restore. The Lord will renew.

Divine intervention is about to happen in the rebuilding of the temple – a physical example of the spiritual reality that is happening. Just as the ancient temple was being restored for new generations of worshipers, so the people were being renewed to be an example of piety and fidelity to God for millennia to come.

Peace and prosperity will again be realized.

Throughout Scripture, trees are a symbol of a thriving and flourishing life. The myrtle tree is a sign of God’s promise to bring new life, branching out to spread into the next generations. Like all trees, the myrtle needs plenty of moisture when young. Yet, it is distinctive in that the myrtle tree can tolerate drought, grow despite limited soil, and remain hardy when it becomes mature.

Your anger lasts a little while,
but your kindness lasts
    for a lifetime.
At night we may cry,
but when morning comes
    we will celebrate. (Psalm 30:5, CEV)

“Tolerate,” “grow,” and “remain” are anything but passive words. People are more than mere observers. “Repent” and “return” and “renew” are verbs. There is a great deal of activity to do. A divine/human cooperation needs to occur. On God’s end, even the angels get involved in the action. What’s happening here is both heavenly and earthly business.

Relational dynamics between God and God’s people are to be a dialogue and not a one-sided monologue. The Lord and the present generation are to demonstrate for future peoples how peace is actually realized and enjoyed.

The Vision of Zechariah, by Unknown artist, c.1300 C.E., Sicily

Like all biblical visions, Zechariah’s is not readily understandable. Nobody is sure about what the symbolism is behind the vision’s horses. Yet, I’ll venture to say that it’s the colors which are significant: red is the color of action; brown is a color of stability and fertility; and white represents purity and holiness. Red, brown, and white mixed together creates a beige color.

Beige is an earthy and dependable color. It’s an inherently welcoming and calming color, offering warmth and symbolizing harmony and comfort. Together, with the horses we have a representation of strength, stability, and structure. They are signs of peace and rest, of God’s shalom.

Spiritual wholeness, moral integrity, relational harmony, and settled peace don’t just magically happen. 

For the Christian, peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus. (Colossians 1:20)

Peace must be both passively received and actively pursued. (Ephesians 4:3)

Practices of peace need to be engrafted into our lives so that we might daily experience it. (Romans 14:13-15:7)

The name “Zechariah” is a Hebrew word meaning, “God remembered.” God has not forgotten divine promises. 

The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health – a place of peace and rest.

The happiest, fully rested, and most peaceful people and nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

To find joy and happiness in life is to find peace and rest. And peace is something to be shared, to be passed onto others.

“The peace of Christ be with you.”

“And also with you.”

Such ritual words and practices are reminders of continually returning to the Lord and finding simplicity and satisfaction in Jesus.

In observing and celebrating the Lord’s Table, we find our penultimate remembrance of how peace was achieved, as well as our supreme participation in the triune God.

Perhaps, then, peace and prosperity will extend their tree-like branches over the earth and into the next generations.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace before us,
Peace behind us,
Peace under our feet.

Peace within us,
Peace over us,
Let all around us be peace.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
Let all around us be Christ. – a Navajo Prayer