What Was God Doing Before Christ?
Preparing for Advent:
Our church community has spent most of the Fall walking through the story of the early church in the Book of Acts. Today we came to Stephen and his summary of the Old Testament as he stood before the Jerusalem Council. Instead of reading his summary, I've prepared my own summary of God's story leading up to the birth of Jesus, so here it is:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,
…and it was good.
The earth was filled with abundance and beauty,
And on this earth, some very special relationships began.
Humanity and God,
Humanity and the Earth
Humanity, with one another.
And it was good.
Good, but not perfect.
There was room to grow, there was room for improvement,
And there was room to fail, to reject these important relationships, and for people to go their own way.
And so the story is also a Fall, a falling away from God, one another, ourselves, and those things that are good true and beautiful.
The story of the Bible is God’s story, mostly told through lots of people’s lives, and seen through the eyes of prophets and story tellers, and poets.
And it is a story of trajectory, a movement towards the restoration of those relationships, and all things being redeemed.
One of the oldest of these stories is from Job – a book of poetry trying to make sense of suffering; trying to see this good world and worship a good God, amidst the suffering that surrounds, and courses through Job’s veins.
Job gives us some good questions, and the story eliminates simplistic answers, and Job doesn’t get all his questions answered, but he does learn that God is here, holding all things together in ways more wonderful than we can behold. And in this book that poetically wrestles with wisdom, God is the only one on top, the source of all wisdom; and as the story goes, more is happening than meets the eye. Some things take so long to be revealed, we might not see them.
But we do have our stories of God intertwined with the lives of people, to give perspective.
Most of the early Biblical narratives follow a family:
A chosen family. One chosen certainly not because of perfection, rather, chosen in spite of their faults…what they do have, is this stream of faith that ran from generation to generation, and is never lost.
Gen. 12:1 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 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
This was the beginning of a family called with a mission to be a blessing to the whole world.
And the story is fascinating
God’s story - woven into the story of the matriarchs and patriarchs,
As they went about their daily lives,
Growing as a family, struggling through relationships,
Eking out an existence.
Still God is with them.
- Like that moment Jacob tricks his father, destroys his relationship with his brother and flees home for fourteen years. On the way, in the wilderness, God is there.
“Where?” Asks Psalm 139, “where can I flee from your presence?”
And the answer is “nowhere.”
Jacob has his 12 sons and at least one daughter, and all the intriguing family dynamics, that comes with family. The sons enact a devious plan against their brother, Joseph; and yet, God is still moving and preparing something great. After being a slave, and then a prisoner, the Lord brings Joseph into 2nd in command and he brings the chosen family to Egypt, and we wonder, what God will do next?
A few centuries go by, and on the surface, that same shadow which crept through the good beginning, took over again and wrote a story of captivity and binding.
Meanwhile, evil never has the last word, and Yahweh, as the people called their God, was busy.
The family grew into a nation, and while the great powers of the day were busy with their acts of suppression, a baby snuck in, right under Pharoah’s nose.
Moses grew up and he wasn’t that impressive – he killed a guy, he ran away, and one of his defining traits is that he couldn’t talk so good. Even when God showed up as a burning bush, it took a while to convince Moses to do what he had to do.
But he did.
The faith was kindled and he showed up and through him God gave great signs and wonders.
And the story which became THE story for the Israelites happened:
An Exodus from Egypt,
release from captivity,
deliverance from the mighty power of Egypt.
Yahweh was known, from that day forth, as the one who saves.
And God’s presence was with the people:
First it was the ark, and then it was the temple.
The prophecy given to Abraham was being fulfilled – this nation was God’s people.
But, were they a blessing to the whole world?
Sometimes Israel was:
With sacrificial stories of love, care for one another, and hospitality for others.
And there were great people of faith who helped make it happen.
It was often the work of the prophets to call to the people and their leaders, and to remind them what was important to God. If you read the prophets, you’ll see that the nations were often affected by war and world events, but what was closest to God’s heart was worship and the care for people and land – and especially the care for widows and orphans, the downtrodden and the foreigners.
Or as the fascinating wordsmith Capon once said:
Don’t for a minute mess with anything that isn’t last, lost, least, little and dead.
Is. 58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
This is worship, this is God’s heart and call to the people.
And its an unchanging call – as relevant today as it was some 2700 years ago.
And yet, the call gets forgotten. We have to keep coming back to it, because other idols and other powers are calling for our attention, distracting and leading us another way.
So God keeps inviting people into worship, so we don’t forget.
Along the way, there were some pretty great leaders of Israel, who heeded the call, though they were human too:
Like King David, who wrote many of the 150 Psalms.
These psalms touch on every aspect of life – every emotion we feel, every stuggle we face, and celebrate every joy. They lament and express both fear and trust. The psalms worship and say I’m not ready to worship right now. Ancient psalms guiding us into our prayers and helping us meet God, no matter where we are in life and faith.
King David’s son Solomon engaged with faith in a different sort of way. His legacy was wisdom litrature. Like Job, he begins with an acknowledgement: God is the source of all wisdom. Solomon’s book is a reminder that there are wise and unwise ways to live, especially around the hot topics of money, sex, and power.
Then the story continues, and unfortunately, the kings ended up ruling in a downward spiral with few bright spots until almost all were doing evil in the sight of the Lord.
Prophets couldn’t change much of what was going on and Israel didn’t redeem the world.
Though remember, nothing can stop God’s plan.
The prophets spoke of judgment if the people forgot their purpose of worship and care for others and the land…and that judgment happened. It was sad days when Jerusalem was made captive and devastating when the temple was torn down.
Psa. 137:1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
After 70 years of exile, It looked like there might be a return to glory when the Israelites were allowed to return to their land and re-build their temple. But two important things never happened:
while many Israelites returned to their land, many others stayed where they were – in foreign places, and new lands. It was not a complete re-gathering of God’s people.
And second, when the temple was re-built, at the great ceremony, amidst great anticipation, there was no visible returning or sense of God’s presence filling the temple. In 169 BC, it was highly symbolic when Antiochus IV, a foreign military commander, rode into the temple, into the centre Holy of Holies, and reported: there is nothing there.
What was God up to, now that the temple, the people, and the land felt abandoned?
- And there was silence
- We usually call it the inter-testament period – 400 years of silence.
Yet, God’s story was still being woven together.
There was a promise that hung pregnant in the air from the last recorded prophet, Malachi
- Mal. 4:5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Then after the silence, suddenly, amidst a routine ceremony, a flurry of Angel activity begins:
First, John the Baptist: The miraculous birth of a boy who grew up and proclaimed the day of the Lord had arrived. He called the people to repentance, a turning towards God, away from whatever was holding their attention.
The Gospel writer Mark remembered the prophets and began his gospel this way:
Mark 1:1 - The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
And the people were hungry for this… they lined up in droves to be baptized by John.
But his ultimate message was “Look,”
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The prophet Isaiah had prayed:
“Lord, that you would rend the heavens and come down”
The prophet Joel had said
Joel 2:28: Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
The time had come.
That early question from Job, of “God, where are you?” had been asked for centuries, and what we find is God’s story woven through it all:
Like how God’s people were cast out of Israel and spread around the world, which became fertile ground for seeds to be planted and a new vine to grow.
Like how empires rose and fell, but one empire came to rule almost the entire known world, which opened up avenues of communication .
Like how small miracles kept happening, such as the stories of a continuing family of Abraham, through Jacob, through Ruth, through King David, generation after generation to a carpenter and receptive young woman.
Like how the vision of a people who are a blessing to the world never ended:
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
That’s the story I’m a part of, and that is the kingdom I’m in. And Jesus is my Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul. (Now Advent begins).