In a Nutshell…
So this is the third week of our four-week review on the Pentateuch. In week one, we looked at the revelation of grace in the Old Testament, specifically that it shouldn’t be set in contradistinction from the New Testament. Last week, we looked at the notion of a peculiar people, something that is particularly evident in the Old Testament, but again is pervasive in the New Testament. We saw that God’s purpose in redemption history can be understood as creating a people, as distinct from merely a collection of individuals, that lives out his redemption purposes in this in-between time.
Today we want to consider the notion of formation. And I hope that you’ll see how this connects with and flows out of our conversation last week of a peculiar people (and that this also connects with the previous week’s conversation about grace). God is creating a people and God is also forming a people. Or, to put it another way, God in His grace is creating a people, and that people (us) needs to be formed.
Again, this is review, so you should remember that we’ve talked about formation numerous times before. In particular, you may remember that we considered the possibility that the Law that was given at Sinai (outlined in Exodus and Leviticus) and reviewed at the entrance to Canaan (in Deuteronomy) is about formation and not about salvation.
I don’t actually think that this is a particularly revolutionary statement. However, in some corners of Christianity, we frame things in terms of “what I need to do in order to be saved.” If we believe particularly in a theology of grace, we may frame it in terms of, “what I need to do in order to stay saved.” In this line of thinking, because Jesus Christ hasn’t come into Israel’s story yet, the Law is given in order to manage the sins of Israel, in order to keep Israel from being too sinful, so that they can retain the privilege and the blessings of being the people of God.
Now there is a certain amount of truth to this, I think. I think that the Law does function reveal, mitigate, and prevent sin among the Israelites. And I think this is an important part of being the people of God. But I’ve grown less and less sure that this has to do with qualifying the Israelites to be the people of God.
And I say this because what we see throughout the biblical story is that nothing qualifies the people. Nothing can make us good enough to earn God’s favour or to be in the presence of God. The only reason we can stand before God, and the only reason we can be called the people of God, is the grace of God.
So I’ll remind you once again that Abraham was chosen and then he became the father of many; Moses was chosen and then he led the people out of Egypt; Israel was chosen and then they were given the Law.
So, that’s a rather long way of saying that the Law was given as a consequence of the people having been chosen. Or, in other words, and in very abridged form, the Law was given so that the people would know how to respond to having been chosen. Or, yet again, “now that they are chosen/delivered, now what?” How then do they live the life of having been chosen? Or, how do they live the saved life?
So, once again, we’ve talked about this a fair bit so I don’t really want to completely revisit territory we’ve already covered. However, as I was thinking about this this past week, I realized how much of the Pentateuch is about journeying. Now this is probably obvious to many of you, and I wasn’t completely unaware of it. But I don’t really think I connected the motif of journeying with formation. To be fair, I may be over-thinking this. And I may be reading into it too much but bear with me and see what you think.
In what should be by now an extremely familiar passage, Genesis 12, we read:
12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “I will make you into a great nation,Genesis 12:1-3
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
God says to Abram, “Go…” Go from the land that you know, the land where you grew up, where you have established your life, to a new place. Now I’m not sure how challenging such a call would have been to someone like Abram. I’m not sure how big a shock would have been experienced. In this day and age, travel has become pretty ubiquitous. If I want to go from here to Vancouver, or Toronto, or Los Angeles, or Australia, I can just jump on a plane and go. But Abram wasn’t just being called to go to a new place, he was being called to enter a new life – and to leave his old one behind.
This motif of journey continues in the story of the patriarchs. In Jacob’s story, his two theophanies occur mid-journey. In the story of Joseph, though his story is not about journeying per se, we see that redemption involves being removed from one’s own land into the new land of Egypt – both for Joseph and for his brothers. And the motif of journey encompasses the entire story of the Exodus and, especially, the post-Exodus.
I suspect the connection between the journey motif and spiritual formation is pretty obvious to all of us. We’ve talked extensively about how Israel is becoming a people – that is, being formed into a people. The journey motif demonstrates this in very real, bodily form.
The point to be taken is that I think being a Christian is about more than just becoming a Christian. Or, being a follower of Jesus means that once we’ve “found Jesus,” we should actually follow Jesus.
Back in our look at the letter to the Ephesians (4:14-16, we took a look at the following passage:
4:14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.Ephesians 4:14-16
You might remember that one of the themes of Ephesians is the notion of growing up in the faith – becoming mature that we might live up to, or live into, the grace by which we have been saved.
This part of Ephesians begins with that wonderful phrase which in the NIV reads, “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Eugene Peterson, in several places, prefers the phrase (as do I), “Walk worthily.”
Walk worthily this journey of salvation. Walk worthily this journey of faith. Walk worthily this journey of redemption.
Now if we read the rest of this paragraph, it says:
4:1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:1-6
Now the reason I bring this to your attention is that it seems to me that Paul’s concern here is with the growth and health of the body, the church community.
And this brings us back to what we studied in the Old Testament. The Old Testament makes clear – at least in my reading – that the concern is not just with the spiritual formation of individuals, but that of the body – the spiritual formation of the people of Israel. Not that individuals don’t matter. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t matter if individuals study scripture, or if individuals pursue moral living, or if individuals seek intimacy with God. Those things do matter. But what the Old Testament says to us again and again is that God is creating a people for His purposes, for His glory.
It is the people who are called to be set apart. It is the people who are called to be different from all other nations. It is the people who are supposed to live towards the calling for which they have been saved. And it is by the people trying to live the saved life, that we point towards the better life, the true life, for which God is working and to which God is calling all of creation.
The final thing to notice is that the journey is never finished. Abram is told to leave his father’s country, the home that he knows to go to the place where God tells him. And this is part of his journey, his spiritual formation – and not just his, but Israel’s. This journey is, in some sense, the beginning of the journey of Israel. But once Abram arrives there, once he settles and begins his family, the journey is not done. Because what we see is that God takes Abraham’s family out of that land into the land of Egypt (through Joseph). And this journey is also God’s will for the formation of the people. It’s a saving act, an act of grace. At the end of the book of Genesis, we know that Israel is exactly where God wants them to be.
But obviously Egypt is not where they remain. Through the book of Exodus, God delivers the people out of Egypt, delivering them out of slavery. God brings them across the Red Sea, destroying their enemies to the foot of Mount Sinai. And at Mount Sinai, the people receive the Covenant Law – or the Covenant Teachings. But we know that this is not the end of their journey either. Because God promises to bring them into the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And after forty years in the wilderness, we arrive at the book of Deuteronomy to the entrance to the promised land, the land of Canaan.
We know all of this. Probably most, if not all, of you knew all of this long before we ever started our Old Testament Survey here at Grace. And though you probably know what will happen later as well, I’d like to draw your attention to this fact:
The promised land, the land of Canaan, the kingdom of Israel under Saul, and David, and the kings that come after, is not the end of the journey either. Because, after the split of Israel into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel (the people) are invaded and conquered. And significant numbers of the Israelites are taken into foreign lands. This is the time of exile.
And even in that exile, God is still with them. Even in that exile, God is still working in, for, and through Israel. God is still forming his people. The people are still becoming.
And in Jesus, the situation has changed dramatically. Because it’s no longer about the formation of ethnic Israel. It’s no longer about the establishment of a national or political entity (if it ever was). Now, through Jesus, the people of God means so much more than it meant in Abraham or Moses’ time.
But we are still becoming. We are becoming because the goal of our becoming will find its fulfillment when Jesus comes again in the fulness of His kingdom. In that time, we will love as we were meant to love, we will worship as we were meant to worship, we will work as we were meant to work – we will be who we were always meant to be.
So What Now…?
Now you may have noticed that I didn’t have much to say about the how. How are we supposed to do this thing? Part of the reason why I haven’t given you a list of to-dos or how-tos is because I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all prescription that works. And I’m not even sure what “works” means. Certainly there are certain things that are important: scripture, worship, fellowship, etc. But whenever we talk about those things, we almost unavoidably fall into particular patterns of what we think we’re supposed to do. We think that worship is supposed to look a certain way; or we think that fellowship is supposed to look a certain way.
Rather than giving you a prescription for spiritual formation, I would simply ask you, ask all of us to pay attention. Pay attention to what God is doing. Pay attention to what Jesus has done. Pay attention to where we have come from and where we are going. And as we keep our hearts and minds attentive to the Holy Spirit, we will continue to seek to go where He wants us to go, do what He wants us to do, and be who He is calling us to be.