God’s Covenant with Abram: Genesis 15:1-6, 17-21
Teaching Strategy: Ask volunteers to identify promises fulfilled and promises waiting for fulfillment that God has given to individuals, to the congregation, and to the wider church. Then invite participants to discuss: What has God promised to God’s people? What does it mean to trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled? In the midst of a world in turmoil, how do – or should – Christians live differently because they believe God’s promises?
The covenant that God made with Abram included two specific promises: the promise of many descendants and the promise of land. Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is the new covenant that God has made with God’s people. In Him, believers are born into new life.
To connect the covenant promises to life today requires considering the nature of God’s promises, but also what is going on in the world. At this moment, the crises confronting the church, the nation, and the world may seem overwhelming. Consider these examples: the massive destruction of recent storms in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean islands; the loss of life wrought by earthquakes in Mexico; the threat of war between the U.S. and North Korea; genocide in Myanmar; the growth of world hunger; the fear of deportation for 800,000 or more people in the U.S. who may soon lose the government protections given them through DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals); the inability of legislators to agree on how to ensure health care and health insurance for all; and/or the increased rhetoric and violence against Blacks, Jews, Muslims, gay and lesbian individuals, not only in this country but around the world.
In the face of storms, death, destruction, war, terrorism, racism, and bigotry… in the face of fear, hostility, anxiety, and despair, what does it mean to trust that God’s promises will be fulfilled? How do – or should – Christians live differently because they believe God’s promises?
- New Earthquake, Third This Month, Hits Mexico
- Why Trump’s Threat to ‘Totally Destroy’ North Korea is Extraordinary — Even for Him; North Korea Accuses Trump of Declaring War
- World Hunger Again on the Rise, Driven by Conflict and Climate Change, New UN Report Says (September 2017)
- Christian Leaders Speak Out On Cassidy-Graham Health Care Bill; National Association of Evangelicals Blasts GOP Effort to Repeal Obamacare
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: Desperate from past disappointments and failures, people fear a continued downward spiral of unfulfilled dreams and goals. How can people find hope to reach fulfillment in life? Although childless, Abram based his hope for descendants on the promises of his covenant with the faithful God.
Spirit-Filled Heart: Ezekiel 36:22-32
Teaching Strategy: Ask participants to identify people they know who are filled with God’s Spirit, and to reflect upon the qualities that demonstrate a spirit-filled heart. Invite them also to share times when they have felt God’s spirit acting within them to change their hearts – for example, their attitudes or their behavior toward others. End with a time of prayer for hearts that are open to be filled with – and transformed – by God’s Spirit.
There is abundant evidence of deep division among people in the U.S. and around the world. The extreme polarization of political parties, emotionally-charged rhetoric of diverse individuals and groups, increased violence against racial and religious minorities, and threat of nuclear war with North Korea are but a few examples.
In the lesson from Ezekiel, the prophet speaks God’s word of judgment and transformation. The people of Israel must repent, that is, they must confront their evil ways, their iniquities, and their abominable deeds (v. 31). Yet God will act to put God’s spirit within them so that they will follow God and observe God’s ordinances: “Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (v. 28).
Believers today are challenged to discern and confront their own iniquities and evil deeds, and to open their hearts to be filled with God’s Spirit. How would Spirit-filled hearts transform our world? How might women and men whose hearts are changed by God help to heal the divisions and hostility among people everywhere – people who are all made in God’s image?
Stories of hope and change?
- Harvey Images Put the Lie to Trump’s Divisive American Vision; America’s Love Over Hate: Houston Over Charlottesville, What’s Next?
- ‘Reprehensible,’ ‘Unconscionable’: Christian Leaders React to Trump’s Decision to Overturn DACA; Faith Leaders Wash the Feet of DACA Recipients, Pray Outside Paul Ryan’s Office
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenant
Unifying Principle: People stubbornly follow their own agendas without regard to the impact of their actions on those they respect and admire. What will motivate these persons to change? God will give them new hearts and put a new spirit in their hearts.
Sabbath Observance: Exodus 31:12-18
Teaching Strategy: Discuss what the commandment to keep the sabbath (vs. 13a-14b) means for Christians today. How is it relevant? How can contemporary Christians keep the sabbath holy? What might keeping the sabbath mean for those whose responsibilities do not allow them to “take Sunday off.”
The Bible contains many references to the sabbath, including God’s commandment to keep the sabbath holy, explanations of what it means to keep the Sabbath and the consequences of not doing so, stories about how Jesus re-interpreted the commandment for the religious leaders of his time, and admonitions from Paul against a legalistic understanding of sabbath observance.
However it is understood, it is clear that keeping the sabbath is a part of keeping God’s covenant and following Christ. But what does it mean today?
In the news this week are follow-up stories about Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, contemporaneous stories about Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and Florida, and remembrances of the destruction that occurred on September 11, 2001. All of these stories remind us of the important role of “first responders” who are always on call to assist others, often at significant risk to themselves.
But it is not only emergency workers who have responsibilities “24/7.” Far too many people are working overtime (whether juggling two or more jobs to make ends meet or holding down one job with seemingly endless demands). They may not be able to attend worship on Sunday or otherwise slow down for rest and renewal.
What, then, does it mean to keep the sabbath today? How can the church help believers to find ways to set aside holy time for rest and renewal of their spirits as well as their bodies? How does the church make it harder – and how can the church change in order to enable believers to keep the sabbath holy?
- Hurricane Harvey Wreaks Historic Devastation: By the Numbers
- Irma Leaves Widespread Devastation, Flooding in Florida – Live Updates; Irma Live Updates: Storm Pushes North, but Millions Are Without Power in Florida
- In Houston, Hurricane Harvey Aid Has Been First Responders, ‘Texans Helping Texans’; ‘A humbling experience’ for local first responders who helped after Hurricane Harvey; Hurricane Heroes: rescuers and first responders step up in the wake of Irma
- Remembering 9/11 (YouTube)
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenants with God
Unifying Principle: Multitasking, complex job responsibilities, and diverse family structures and commitments may make persons feel overwhelmed. How can one find relief from the tedious and mundane? God commanded Moses and the Israelites to rest on the sabbath and keep it holy as a sign of their reverence to God who created the earth in six days and who rested and was refreshed on the seventh day.
Circumcision: Genesis 17
Teaching Strategy: Discuss what a faithful follower of Jesus “looks like.” What visible signs indicate that a person is committed to following Jesus and walking with God?
In Genesis 17 God establishes a covenant with Abraham that includes the promise of land and numerous descendants: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (vs.7-8). Abraham would become the father of a “multitude of nations.” The passage describing this covenant begins with a short, but powerful demand from God: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (v.1).
God declared that the physical sign of this covenant would be circumcision of every male. Later, circumcision was described not only as a physical act but also as symbolic, “circumcision of the heart” (Deut. 30:6) and compared to baptism, “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism” (Col. 2:11-12).
The lesson raises a profound question. Are there visible signs today to indicate a person is committed to following Jesus and walking with God? If so, what are they? Is baptism a sufficient indicator? Holding certain beliefs? Living in a particular way (or not living in a different way)? Who among us – if anyone – can be the judge?
I would suggest that a group of Christian leaders has provoked widespread discussion of this question even in the media. Although the focus of the recently adopted “Nashville Statement” is human sexuality, and in particular, attitudes toward homosexuality and transgenderism, what is notable for this week’s lesson is that the writers acknowledged they were drawing a line in the sand regarding what it means to be a Christian. They were saying that those who do not accept the Statement as written have abandoned Christianity. “WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness. WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree. … Anyone who persistently rejects God’s revelation about sexual holiness and virtue is rejecting Christianity altogether, even if they claim otherwise.”
The Nashville Statement provides food for thought and discussion that may be of interest to class participants. Beyond the particular content, however, is the broader and deeper question of what are the visible signs that indicate a person is a follower of Jesus? And who – besides God Almighty – can be the judge? When and to what extent can some believers say about other believers – that she or he or they – is/are not Christian? When and to what extent must we accept differences within the universal Christian church? What are the beliefs or practices about which faithful Christians may disagree?
- More Than 150 Evangelical Religious Leaders Sign ‘Christian Manifesto’ on Human Sexuality; Nashville Statement (text of the statement)
- Hundreds Of Christian Leaders Denounce Anti-LGBTQ ‘Nashville Statement’; Thousands of Christians Respond to Nashville Statement with Emphatic ‘No’
- Christians who reject all refugees are ‘hypocrites,’ pope says (thought-provoking comments by Pope Francis, including “You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian”)
- The Trump Administration’s Alternative Christianity (a provocative discussion of signs that suggest actions by the current administration are inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus)
Fall 2017 Theme: Covenants with God
Unifying Principle: Humans have an innate desire to support their children and ensure their future. What is required to make this possible? God used circumcision to ratify an everlasting covenant between God and Abram to make him and his descendants prosperous, provided they walk with God and live blameless lives.