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Sibling Rivalry Esau and Jacob.

Sibling Rivalry.
As we see this dysfunctional family move on to the next generation we see Isaac and Rebekah’s children, twin boys, Esau and Jacob emerge from the womb as fierce rivals, so much so that Jacob the second son was born “holding on to his brothers’ foot” (Gen.25.26).

We have already seen sibling rivalry at its worst a few chapters earlier in Genesis with Cain and Abel where their rivalry and jealousy lead to violence and death, and here we see history repeating itself with dangerous family rivalry rearing its head.

As I thought of this story I can recall so many instances of where unhelpful and ungodly rivalries end up causing pain and destruction; I worked in an environment where two colleagues were always running each other down and trying to trip the other up -it made for a truly horrible working environment (made even more sad because it was a Church community), for a while I was a Vicar in a parish where there were two (later three and then five) Churches and one of these was deeply insecure and was incredibly hostile to the other Churches in the team (which not only caused pain within the parish but thwarted the mission and ministry of God within the parish); I knew of two friends who despite being mates for decades were so competitive and putting the other down and sadly now they no longer speak.

God’s created order was to bring the best out of one another, created for interdependence, and with good healthy relationships everyone flourishes, yet we fail for the lie that our success is based upon someone else’s failure, our winning is built on someone else loosing.
The problem with rivalries are they escalate, sometimes -as with Cain and Able- with tragic consequences, as ‘tit for tat’ builds and builds, requiring someone to step away, surrender and break this destructive cycle with grace and generosity.

Rivalry is often based on insecurity -not knowing our worth and value- and trying to gain affirmation in ways that are neither helpful nor Godly. It is often fuelled by envy and jealousy of someone else and can become incredibly destructive.

In the story of Jacob and Esau, or is that Esau and Jacob? This is exasperated by the blatant favouritism of their parents where Isaac favoured his wild and hairy son Esau and Rebekah favoured the bright academic smoothie that was Jacob.

Jacob swindled Esau out of his birth-right for a bowl of stew (Esau had returned from hunting starving hungry and Jacob drove a hard bargin) and Jacob conned his blind Father by dressing in Esau’s clothes and stealing his blessing.
This caused Jacob to go on the run as Esau was planning to kill him, and Esau was not the kind of guy you messed with!

Is there a rivalry that is causing you (or someone else) pain? –Rather than let this jealousy consume you, surrender it at the foot of the cross of Christ.

Is there a negative relationship where conflict is escalating?

Are we gaining pleasure from someone else’s failure? -If so again take it to the cross of Christ.

Are there people like Isaac and Rebekah that are spurring you on -perhaps we need to stop listening to them? -to often we are goaded into staying in behaviours we ought not engage with.
Is there -like Jacob- someone who you have wronged who perhaps you need to turn around and apologise too and be reconciled?

Perhaps too take a moment and ask God to give us grace, generosity and help us find our security in God’s awesome love for us, not in how changeable relationships make us feel.

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Temptation: What’s your Apple…

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves”.

We often get a lot of our theology from the religious paintings we’ve seen, which always depict the ‘forbidden fruit’ as an apple but the word ‘apple’ doesn’t appear in the text!

The other question this passage raises is ‘why is God allowing temptation into his perfect creation?’ is giving people free-will irresponsible? And on one level I think they have a point, but when we take a step back we see that choice is a gift, and choice matters, we as human-beings can choose to accept God or reject him, to follow him or turn from him.

Just as with the world of dating and marriage (actually a repeated metaphor though-out scripture) for a choice to be made there has to be a real opportunity to say no and to opt out, God in his grace who deserves our worship, gave his creation the free-will to choose not to do life his way with him, but go on their own.

It is a funny narrative starting off with a talking snake, and much ink has been spilled about allegory and metaphor, but that misses the point, anyone who has wrestled with temptation will know the battles (battles that usually rage inside out mind) and will spot the similar pattern in our passage.

First the doubt, “Did God really say” (Gen.3.1)-we as human-beings look for the loopholes and seek to justify our behaviour and so questioning the foundation of our thinking is the primary tactic, if God didn’t say it then there is no reason why we shouldn’t do it, but just as Eve in this story deep down we normally do know that God has said it.

The snake questions God’s motives and character, is he really good, kind and compassionate, does he want the best for us?

The second in the consequences of doing something will end up being better for us, it is the premise that our own thinking of what is ‘good’ for us is somehow better than God’s plan for us -which of course it never is (Gen.3.4). Also, there is something attractive ‘pleasing to the eye’ (v6) -at least superficially- about sin, and the more we focus on the ‘fruit’ the more we want it.

Also, many of us who have fallen into temptation, will recognize that moment that was promised to be wonderful and amazing never delivers yet instead feels hollow and empty and then overwhelmed with shame. Shame causes us to run and hide from God.

It is very easy to read this with a smug superiority, but if I had been in their position I think I could well have fallen for it too, we need to look at other peoples’ sin and failings with the heart of “there by the grace of God go I”.

I have been reading lately a book by Robert Harris called Conclave, and one of the characters ponders the question about his brother cardinals and ask “what was their apples of temptation?” and idea which made me think, what are the things that tempt me away from my walk with God? What are the things that I know are wrong but look really attractive to me? Are there things I know that God has said but I try and pretend he hasn’t? Do I question God’s motives and the goodness of his plan for my life?

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Joseph.

When we first meet Joseph he is a young guy full of potential, indeed he is a young man with a promise on his life, he has had a prophetic dream and knows God has a plan to use his.
Yet there is a problem, it is pride, he is boasting to his brothers about how God is going to use him, and how one day everyone will bow down to him which annoys his brothers massively.
It was true, he did have a dream, but truth is not the same as wisdom and tact, Joseph seems at the beginning to be very young and very immature when reading through the first chapters of Genesis.
Although the prophesy was true that Joseph would end up in the palace and clearly too he was a bright and gifted individual, yet God needed to work in him before he could work through him. This, I believe is true of us too, we all want God to work through us but working in us is often tough, costly, sacrificial and painful.
As Christians we believe that God calls people, but sometimes -like Joseph- other things in our hearts and lives need to be worked through with him before we are in a place that is ready and able to serve.
Reading many leadership books over the years I have discovered that most writers believe -even non Christian writers- would cite ‘Character’ as more important the ‘Competence’ or ‘Charisma’, one of my friends Mark talks about “Call, Competence and Charisma without Character Causes Catastrophe”.
I have worked with many people who have been gifted with incredible potential but perhaps I/we as the Church have rushed them to the Palace before God was able to do the work in them that he needed to do. God it seems does his deepest and best work in us not on the mountain tops of joy but rather in the valleys filled with challenge.
Joseph’s Father Jacob’s favouritism of him does not help endear him to his brothers, in giving Joseph a coat with long sleeves Jacob is saying that his son is too important to work -which could only have boosted his pride. Joseph is not the oldest son, but rather he is the oldest son of the wife who Jacob his Father loves the most. This is a truly dysfunctional and messed up family. We see the fruit of Jacob’s terrible parenting and Joseph’s pride when his jealous and envious brothers seek revenge on Joseph.
Joseph is thrown into a pit, his coat ripped and soaked in animal blood, to pretend that he has been killed by a wild animal. Joseph is then sold to human traffickers who take him to Egypt. From slavery in Egypt things got better for a brief while, until he ends up thrown into prison on false allegations of attempted rape.
Before proud Joseph was ready for the Palace he first went into the Pit and the Prison, if I had been Joseph I fear that my circumstances might have made very bitter and angry, but for Joseph they were something of a ‘refiners fire’ burning up the dross and purifying the gold within his character, Joseph learning to trust God in the toughest of circumstances and difficult situations.
One story I find deeply challenging is his prophetic gift for interpreting dreams, Joseph’s own dream had not yet been fulfilled, indeed from his prison cell it looks (humanly speaking) hopeless and unlikely, and he could have given up on the promise of his youth, allowing his personal discouragement to stop him interpreting dreams for other people. Yet, when Joseph used his gift for the glory of God and the service of other people this became the doorway God used to see him to bring him to the Palace.
Later, in the time of great famine, his brothers did come to Joseph and they did bow before him, the prophecy was fulfilled, yet a promise that took many years to be fulfilled and Joseph had to trust God even through some truly horrible times.
Perhaps -like Joseph- you need to allow God to work in you before he can work through you, perhaps you are rushing unprepared to the Palace?
Perhaps if it feels like you are in a pit or a prison and perhaps Joseph’s might encourage you that God can and does transform even the bleakest of circumstances, Joseph a picture of faithful endurances even in tough and chall

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Who do you think you are? -A challenge to read the Old Testament.

My wife likes watching the T.V. Programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” -for those who haven’t seen it, it is where celebrities talk about their past, their history and their ancestry, often finding a mix of inspirational figures and some hidden shameful scandals too, yet these stories in a way are defining stories. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and our story of who we have become are influenced by those who have gone before us in our history and family line.
When some friends have heard that I was writing about the Old Testament I received a few scornful comments that thought this was a bit of a waste of time, and yet I believe the Old Testament is full of the story of God and his people, our spiritual forefathers and mothers, our spiritual ancestors, the pioneers and giants of faith whose shoulders we stand upon -and those who stumbled and fell into all myriad of scandals which we might be feel drawn too.
Sometimes on the odd episode of “who do you think you?” there are those moments of emotion and indeed embarrassment at past behaviours which the celebrity question, Are confused -or angry- with wants to distance themselves from, yet despite what is sometimes an uncomfortable journey most weeks the celeb’s say they are glad they discovered their own history and the journey of their family.
This is my prayer for Christians reading the Old Testament, it is not always easy reading, most of us will struggle on occasions, the Old Testament does make us confused -and angry- sometimes, and yet I believe that we will be enriched by visiting/re-visiting our spiritual history and our spiritual families journey despite its challenges.
Yet, I believe that without the Old Testament we struggle to understand the New Testament. I once heard a preacher saying the Old Testament was like a joke with New Testament message of Jesus death and resurrection as the punchline.
I didn’t like this phrase, but the more I thought about it the more profound I found it. Too often we talk of ‘Christ died for us’/’died for sin’/’paid the price’ all great spiritual truths but unless we understand their context we are just repeating a punchline to increasingly perplexed listeners who are desperate to hear what comics call ‘the set-up’.
As I look at the mission of Jesus when he spoke to the disciples on the road to Emmaus he explained his death and resurrection from the beginning, from the Old Testament, from their Jewish scriptures, from the Bible that Jesus himself read. When the Church was birthed at Pentecost, Peter went straight back to the written word of God to explain and reveal Jesus.
As I read the Old Testament and journey with some very interesting people, some of whom I think I would prefer not to journey with if I was honest, I discover myself more and more within the text, often revealed in the places and as people I don’t always want to be. I firmly believe that there is no book like the Bible that understands the human condition quite like the pages of scripture, and nothing else challenges me in such a way either.
Yet the Old Testament also shows us more about God his character and nature, his might and his majesty, his holiness, purity, his passion for justice and righteousness and his love and compassion.
These scriptures reveal the person of Jesus Christ, who speaks powerfully and loudly from these pages and I am still amazed by books written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, lived, died on the cross and rose again converge on God’s redemptive action in human history.
Recently a friend has completed the iron-man challenge, and he had to make the choice to do things that he didn’t find comfortable or appealing, yet in doing the difficult he developed his fitness and gained strength and resilience.
So, my challenge to us all is to read the Old Testament, to encounter difficult passages and not just cherry-pick the odd nice stories we know, allow the uncomfortable questions to challenge us as they build spiritual muscle tone.
As we read these stories of our spiritual family, we discover who we truly are, we discover too whose we really are, and by the power of Christ the living word transforms us by his spirit from the written word.
I’ll close with some words from St. Paul to his protégé Timothy.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a]may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16&17)

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Ubuntu

Over the last few days everywhere I have gone someone has talked about Ubuntu and so it feels like perhaps God is challenging me to explore this a bit further.

Ubuntu is a Zulu South African word about the inter-connectedness of humanity, most simply explained as it means “I am because we are!” a powerful idea popularized in the western mindset by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu that celebrates the sacredness of human relationships -our relationship with each other reflect a God who is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a perfect and unbroken community of love- relationship is at the heart of God’s intended order for his world, relationship with God and relationship with each other, the vertical and horizontal -up and across, which makes a cross picture.

Whilst at theological college I had a lecturer who built on the idea of ubuntu with a phrase “I am because he is and we are!”

John Donne who said, “no man is an Island!” we need one another to survive, but more than that the Ubuntu idea is that there is a sacred bond between people -all people- we are all one race, we do not belong to ourselves but to one another.

In the western culture we live in we have fallen for the false ideology of individualism ‘I’m alright jack’/’look after number one’ culture that (half) believes the lie of Margaret Thatcher when she said “there is no such thing as community”. -The voice of God silences such foolishness with the words “it is not good for man to be alone!” (Gen). In the midst of God’s perfect and wonderous creation there there is still more that God wants to bring as a blessing to his creation.

In Genesis we read of God creating male and female, and affirming the need for humans to be in relationship with each other, just as the Godhead -Father, Son and Holy Spirit- is in relationship within themselves, in what Richard Rohr calls ‘the divine dance’. Indeed from the love of God births human life, and from human love births human life.

The image of God creating Eve from Adam’s rib is an illustration of sanctity of relationship between them, literally of the same flesh and substance, and a bodily picture of absence and completeness.

God chose to create woman this way, showing humanity that the value of cost and sacrifice. The image of God bringing Eve to Adam almost seems a little like the Father of the Bride bringing his beloved daughter to him, gifting them to each other, they delight and rejoice in each other, and they are affirmed by God in the slightly different words from the rest of creation “it is very good” (Gen).

Interesting too, that God doesn’t create Adam a clone of himself, but in Eve although equal in everything they are also different.

The Ubuntu idea says can be described of “you are an extension of me”, and we have responsibilities to one another but is not just ‘loving those who are like us’ but loving those who are not like us, and in the other we see something unique about God through the lenses of the people made in his wonderful image. Yet too often we only talk and engage with those who see the world in the same way as we do, limiting ourselves.

Surely to understand something of the vast complexity of God we need the diversity of humanity for insight into who God is. As we try and live for God, following him, we realize that a call of this magnitude needs the help of those around us, those like us, and those different from us.

The writer of the wisdom literature writes:
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labour:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.

A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
We need one another, we are not enough on our own, but we also need God himself to work in us and through and in our relationships, holding us together as that central chord.

Called to embody that cross-shaped living, with others helping us (and us them) in our relationship with God (the vertical) and God helping us in our relationships with one another (the horizontal).

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Not the Count of Monte Christo

When I was a child my grandfather used to tell me classic stories from literature, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Lorna Doon and the Count of Monte Christo and I was pretty captivated by these amazing adventure stories.

The Count of Monte Christo is Alexander Dumas’ tale of a young man, Edmund Dante, who is (unjustly) thrown into jail by three rivals. In the jail he learns of their treachery, escapes and finds vast treasure and then with his new found wealth (and the passage of time that has aged him) he gains a new identity –the Count of Monte Christo- and sets out to destroy each of his rival’s lives.

Revenge can make a great novel and adventure, but in reality revenge does nothing to take away our pain instead it simply feeds all that is negative within us, bitterness eats away at our very soul.

Buddha is reputed to have said: “”Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die” Whilst the author Mark Twain said: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.

Esau had good reason to be resentful, bitter and angry with his brother Jacob, he had been wronged and he was unable to re-write the past or take back his brothers blessing, and yet he chose the costlier and sacrificial path of forgiveness and reconciliation with his brother Jacob.

Joseph too had the perfect opportunity to revenge on his brothers –indeed if we read the story for the first time it sounds as though he is laying a trap, but in the end he chooses to move on from the past and create a new future of reconciliation.

Jesus, the only truly holy and righteous human being to walk the earth forgave those who were brutally murdering him and said: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.

Forgiveness is not denying the pain of the past or saying it did not matter, we read about how Joseph wept with such intensity that his servants heard his cries and were concerned for him.

Yet despite the pain choosing to act righteously and graciously, seeking the Christ like path of forgiveness, non-retaliation or vengeance.
I once was asked about forgiveness (the person they were angry with had died many, many, years ago) and I felt God simply say “because God loves you and wants you to be free”, which echoes another quote “forgiveness sets a prisoner free and discover that prisoner was you” Lewis B. Smedes.

Forgiveness is a choice, often a very tough choice, and often is a choice we keep have to keep walking in. I find I forgive and then unforgiveness creeps back in a steals the ground back and have make the choice afresh to forgive again.

Forgiveness is a constant choice to keep choosing the path of forgiveness –something we need God’s help and grace to do every step of the journey, but often requires us to make the first move.

One of the stories I find incredibly challenging is from Corrie Ten Boom, who was sent to one of the Nazi Concentration Camps –where her sister Betsy died- for hiding Jews. After the war she went on tour talking about forgiveness, one day at a Church she met a man who was a guard at the Camp, the man had repented of his past but still Corrie was reminded of the horrors she had face. She prayed and held out her hand to the man –she describes her arm feeling like lead so hard and heavy to hold out to this man, and yet she was courageous and faithful and was able to grasp his hand in forgiveness.

Nelson Mandela, who was a political prisoner for many years on Robin Island, chose when he left the prison cell to leave behind him bitterness and hatred and became a force of unifying a very fractured and divided South Africa, he could when he became President courted popularity by persecuting those who persecuted him and his people, but instead he chose to forgive and showed the greater power of grace and love.

So, what of us? The challenge today is embrace forgiveness, to free ourselves from the captivity of bitterness, anger, hatred and unforgiveness.

Let us nail our desires for revenge and vengeance to the cross of Christ as we choose the tougher and narrower path of grace, perhaps even needing to walk this stretch of road more frequently than we might like.

Let us choose the ending to our story or stories, may they resemble the heroes of our faith and not the tale of vengeance from people such as the count of Monte Christo.

 

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Arguing with God (Abraham pleading for Sodom and Gomorrah).

I was talking to a lady in the pub at PINTS OF VIEW, our weekly service in the function room of the pub (with lots of chatting to the locals before and afterwards) and this lady was complaining of great pain in her joints from arthritis. I asked her if I could pray for her. “You can’t bother God with something as trivial as my arthritis!” she told me, I gently disagreed, I believe we can talk to God about anything! In Genesis we see a great story that illustrates this.

Here in Genesis 18 we see God allowing –in fact inviting and wanting- Abraham to talk to him and for him to influence the heart of God and his actions, God wants to include humanity in his plans.

“ Then the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him” (Gen 18.17).

20 Then the LORD said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous”… Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The LORD said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

In Abraham’s plea for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah he does not speak to God is hushed reverential tones, nor does he speak in flowery language or long winded sycophancy. I worry that for us today we are very British in our prayers and are the product of post Victorian Britain where we feel we can’t complain or disagree with anyone, much less God.

Yet here Abraham has a boldness in his prayer –a boldness we are invited to have as the writer to the Hebrew Church writes “ Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” or “Boldly” as the King James Version says.
We can be real, authentic and bold in our prayers to God and that is okay, in fact he delights in the reality of the relationship with us sharing our heart with him and he sharing his heart with us.

Note, in his prayer that Abraham reminds God of his character, his justice and righteousness, when we don’t understand what is happening we can still remind God of his character, his love, mercy, justice and righteousness, and even when we don’t understand what God is doing or why things happen, his character will remain unchanged, after-all “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13.8)

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

Abraham argues and barters God down to whether there were just a mere ten righteous people there in Sodom, here we see two sides of God’s character, a God who is Holy, righteous and just –a God who hates sin- but also a God who is gracious and longing to be merciful.

This is before we see the Angels of the Lord visit Sodom which we read about in chapter 19, we see the men of the city act in a depraved way and there is a violent attempt at gang rape of the angels at the home of Lot, which illustrates something of the depravity of the city but was not the sole cause of God’s anger against the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Lot and his family are spared, but the cities are destroyed by Sulphur.

Again, is a tough and challenging part of the Bible, where we see judgement and rescue.

We see Abraham pouring out his heart to God, and yet he did not get the answer he wanted or was looking for, sometimes in our wrestling when praying we too do not understand why God does (or doesn’t do) what we would like him too.
So, let’s take this story and cling onto it, remembering we have a God who hears and longs to talk with us.

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