I had a very dear friend died this past week. Jim Barnette was diagnosed with a very rare brain disease several months ago. It only took months for the disease to eat away at his brain and finally his body could no longer support life. I say he was a very dear friend, but truth is that we worked and lived together for a couple of months as part of a ministerial team in 1984. During that time I I was there when he shared with me that he was smitten with Deanna, another member of our team. I was there as he courted this young lady, now understand, he was the kind of guy who would use words like court and smitten. Since then we have hardly seen or talked with each other. I went to Louisville, to be in his wedding, and then Andrea and I stopped in Birmingham, AL, the summer of 2010 to see him and his family. Otherwise, the descriptors of our relationship greatly changed over the 37 years. Even though the relationship changed I still, even this week feel as though I have lost a very dear friend.
Relationship are strange, they can change with the seasons of life, yet somewhere in our brain, and our heart, there will always be a small piece remaining that defined the relationship as it once was.
In a way, Andrea and I, like many of you, have had to navigate the changes in our relationship with our own kids. The boundaries have changed, they are no longer under our authority, they are no longer in our house, they have grown up and taken the next steps on their paths. We are now figuring out the terms of those old, but now new, relationships.
There is a word for that in the Hebrew, it is the word ‘brit’, an agreement of relationship. While this, in our lives, is usually unspoken – sometimes developing an understanding and agreement of the relationship is a big deal. This is the same idea as ‘treaties’ where one nation, or group, enters into an agreement and terms of coexistence. In the English, this word is interpreted as the word ‘covenant’ but in the Hebrew language it is ‘Brit’.
Especially in the Old Testament, there are a handful of these covenants that define the relationship between God and man. Most Jewish, Christian, and even Islamic scholars say that the first covenant between God and humans was Abraham and Sarah, it was with these two individuals that God gave the promise and hope of and for all of humanity. However, these were not the first humans, nor did they have the first story about humanity. So, we are faced with the very real question, ‘why does it take 12 chapters in the book of Genesis, our origins account, for us to meet Sarah and Abraham the central characters in the development of our faiths.
Rabbi Eli Freedman explains it this way, ‘The authors and editors of the Torah were making an important point by telling a series of pre-stories before our progenitors arrive on the scene. The first four stories in the Torah all end poorly. Adam and Eve get expelled from the Garden, Cain kills his brother Abel, God destroys the entire world with a flood, and, in the Tower of Babel, God confounds our languages and scatters us across the world.’
Rabbi Freedman then refers to a Rabbi Zoob who continues this explanation by adding, ‘these first four stories of Genesis teach us that the pre-Abraham and Sarah world could not function properly because it was missing the covenantal relationship between God and people. Although God spoke to Adam and Eve, and even walked with Noah, the world was not complete because it lacked brit – covenant.’
We are created to live and survive in community, in relationship, to be together. That community, relationship, togetherness, is an always evolving union, one with differing boundaries which are different from our other unions, and even more different than the unions that we are not a part of. Marriage, family, work, play, and all types of defining words categorize those grouping within which there is a constant give and take process of establishing and reestablishing those relationships. We are in a constant state of defining and redefining our covenants with each other, our ‘brits’.
This initial covenant relationship of humanity, between God, Abraham, and Sarah was one that was fairly defined from the beginning but it took decades for the 2 humans parties of the covenant to understand and grasp.
The Brit, the Covenant, that Sarah and Abraham entered into with God was one were the primary obligation on the part of the humans was faith. A faith that led to a trust in God. A belief that God will hold to, and come through on, his Brit responsibilities.
The primary reason for the extended period of time taken to understand the Brit was the human frailty of insecurities. While we see this in both humans, Sarah and Abraham, we have very specific moments of insecurity where we are allowed to witness their lives and faith in God. Let’s just look at Abraham, his problem, which is the fragility for most of us, was Insecurity.
- An insecurity that presents as Fear and Self Centeredness. Abraham was afraid for his own safety so he detoured from a covenant of respect and loyalty to his wife to a self centered safe yourself philosophy. He threw his wife under the bus to protect his own life.
- An insecurity that presents as Doubt. Abraham could only see his own failings and weaknesses, he could seldom see anything else, therefore. seeing God’s promise of a descendant was a no starter. His doubt about self blinded him from recognizing that God’s part of the Brit had nothing to do with Abraham, or Sarah’s, abilities.
- An insecurity that presents as Impatience. God seemed to be taking too long so Abraham took charge to make sure God’s part of the Brit was fulfilled. Remember, time is a element of our human existence, it is not a factor in eternity.
Fear, Self Centeredness, Doubt, and Impatience were all blockades that keep these 2 humans, and often us, from recognizing that this Brit was made with God. God would be and was faithful. So, on the third discussion between God and Abraham regarding the Brit, God says, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’
‘Walk before me and be blameless,’ What an interesting instruction. ‘Walk before me and be blameless.’
We had heard something similar but with an intentional difference when the relationship between God and Noah was described, ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.’ For Noah, this was a no-brainer, it was the very core of who he was, he didn’t need to be told to do this. For some reason, he did not have to have the terms of his Brit with God negotiated – he WAS blameless. But the logistical terms of their Brit was different, we are told that Noah walked with God. The Hebrew preposition significant in this relationship was the word ‘eth’ which meant that Noah was walking beside God. They were not equals but when God was present Noah walked before him. This same word ‘eth’ can also connote that the two were connected, they belonged together, much like Peanut butter and Jelly, there was a very comfortable and natural relationship between the two.
With Abraham, however, the relationship does not have the same automatic natural presentation. Whether it was the insecurities that held Abraham back, or even just his background, personality, and human make up, Abraham needed to be told his stance in the Brit. ‘Walk before me and be blameless,’ The word here is ‘lə·p̄ā·nay’ (lafanay), carrying the logistical designation of ‘in front of’, and a more expansive understanding of ‘in the presence of’.
I was driving in a very small car, packed with many other people, on a one lane highway from Ketchum, ID to our project in the Sawtooth mountains. We were running late and did not have time for any delays so we were singularly focused on our destination. As we drove around a curve of the road taking us deeper into the Sawtooth National Forest we were quickly confronted with an obstacle leaving us no choice but to put the car in park and remain still. For all we could see ahead and around us was a sea of sheep walking on the road and as far to our left and right as we could see. The sheep were headed in our direction and soon we were engulfed by these animals that are by no means as gentle and cute looking when they are knocking against you window and were rocking our car as they squeezed through. At one point a rather ambitious large sheep got on our hood of our car with the obvious plan to walk over us instead of fighting for a position in the mob going around us. So, we just sat there looking around locked into a situation that we had never experienced before, and would probably never again. We began to marvel at the flow of the sheep and the control of those attempting to corral them. We could see cowboys in the distance on their horses and the dog nipping at the heals of the sheep, but as we watched these were giving very little direction, mainly they were just present. However, as we began to see the end of this sea of sheep it became obvious that this entire mob was being driven by one person, on a horse, masterfully using his presence to lead from behind. He was in the position where he could see what his helpers and the dogs were doing and where they needed to be, but also, he had a clear eye on all the sheep. They were directly in his presence, where he could guide and protect. It was amazing to watch even if we were now running extremely late.
Abraham needed to be in God’s presence, he needed God to see him fully and completely, nothing hidden, nothing withheld. In that place, God could guide and encourage him in regard to the command to be blameless. Abraham had a history of acting out of impatience, fear, and doubt, as we all do. Being in front he would be in a position where God could masterfully woo him back onto the path.
Jesus was a ‘from behind’ leader, Jesus was a ‘in the ‘presence leader’. Even though his disciples were called followers, he was directing, protecting, and leading from behind often. Their presence in front of him enabled his to lead while developing them into leaders they would need to be. Jesus sent his disciples in front of him to go into the crowd as they were tasked with feeding 5,000 people. He watched from behind as he sent them out to heal, cure, and deliver a hopeless and suffering people. He was present as he knelt down before the woman accused of adultery and then he was present with her accusers as he stood and asked ‘Who is truly qualified to stone this woman?’ He was present at a distance as he stood on the beach and called out to his disciples in their boat. He was present when woman touched the hem of his garment to be healed. Jesus’ presence was alway a reality, his ability to see everything in our story, and as we timidly, or even arrogantly attempt to approach him unnoticed. He was there, in the garden, seeing everything as Adam and Eve thought they could go unnoticed. He is there for us, not against us, he is there to guide us, not to judge us, he is there because he loves us.
I was hiking out of the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas after a week and a half of outdoor training. Because of previous scheduled engagements, I, and one other person had to pack out early. I had very obviously failed to become a master backpacker during the time in training so I know that our trainer was overjoyed that I would not be making the trek alone. I would be traveling with a guy who came into the training a weathered outdoorsman, and backpacker. He would not only carry his heavy pack, but he could also identify danger, and, in this instance, he could successfully navigate a topographical map. As we began to walk I volunteered to walk behind and have him lead, but he declined and took the back position helping to guide me on the paths and turns we needed to make to arrive timely and safely at our pick up destination. A couple of hours into the hike I felt my pack tug abruptly and then I was silently pulled back. As I realized that it was my hiking partner who had stopped me – he gave me the signal to be still and be quiet. He we walked a little ways off the path and picked up a fallen branch. Then, as he carefully walked to a position a few steps in front of me he gently took the branch and used it to scoop up a rattlesnake on the path directly in front of me. When he had moved the snake I understood the value of having him in the back, where he was able to have my back.
God stays behind because he too, has our back.
How do we stand in front so Jesus can have an all encompassing view of us.
- We must genuinely decide, a heart and mind positioning, that we are willing to be that visible and exposed.
- We must deliberately put ourself, again, in a genuine heart and mind place of being seen. This means asking ourselves, ‘Is there anything that I am purposely keeping off limits to God?’
- We must accept the fact that being ‘in front’ of God means that we are also ‘in front’ of others.
- We must make the deliberate move to be in the front of God, to be continually in his presence.
In the end, we are not really able to hide from God, Adam and Eve, discovered this, in fact, their thoughts and weaknesses in regard to what they could not have were very visible to God. Problem was, they were not in front of God, their deceit before God deafened them from God’s guidance from behind.
God was present in garden, in the field with Cain and Able, in the flood, at Babel, and with Abraham, Jesus was present with the disciples when he asked them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And he was present when Peter boldly identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. And, moments later, Jesus was also there, as he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan!’
God walked beside Noah. God walked behind Abraham. God told Satan to get behind Jesus. Next to, in front of, and behind. Two of these options involve being in the presence of God, the third, being behind, blocks Satan’s sight and power – God does not need to see, watch over, or even watch out for Satan. His end has already been decided, primarily by Satan himself. God has already dealt with Satan, now he walks next to us, behind us, and he is always present with us.
There was a very human characteristic of that huge herd of sheep. None of the sheep displayed any attempts to get out of the herd, and out of the view of the shepherd. In fact, the only ones that were ever moved out of the flow was due to being pushed out by the crowd, not by choice. If they did find themself out of the flow of the herd, regardless of their size or age, they began the struggle, to battle, to get back in the flow with the herd. None wanted to be away from the flock – they had just descended from the mountain, where, I am sure, they experienced the presence of the protection and care of the shepherd.
When Jesus left the wilderness following the time of temptation, scripture tells us that Satan left with the intention to come back to Jesus when the time was opportune. There was an opportune time time in the temple with the man filled with a demon began to proclaim who Jesus was. This moment with Peter was another opportune moment. Peter was not seeking to be a tool of Satan, he was only expressing a desire that Jesus be received in the same positive light that Peter himself had originally seen Jesus. Also, Peter did not want an unhappy and hopeless end of this story. Jesus, however, came to give life, a life for eternity that begins now, not after death, not after suffering. Jesus came to lead us, from behind, to a full life. His mission to confront injustice, to cure disease, and to heal sickness, could not be interrupted or even sidetracked, he would not be detoured. So, Jesus called Satan out, in the midst of this opportune moment and said ‘get behind me!’ Jesus would continue on his mission even though it would mean going through the cross.
Notice the placement of Satan, his order when relegated to being behind Jesus, Jesus who was behind the followers. Now, Jesus was blocking the view of Satan. Sure Satan could still lure those in front of Jesus away, but it would be as much a choice of the humans as it was an effort of Satan. Now Jesus could see the followers, and now, even more than before, he could see if Satan was engaging in an unwelcome manner that needed to be confronted.
So, what do we do with this? What does it change in our life and how does it move us in our proximity to God? Where are we standing? Where are you standing?