Sunday, November 30, 2008

Obsessions with obscurity

I think I have a strange obsession with obscure Bible characters. The one I’ve focused on this week is Ebed-Melech. If you don’t remember who he is or where in the Bible to read about him, my point is proven when I say that he’s an Ethiopian in Jeremiah 38. I taught on that passage this weekend, realizing that I couldn’t count on much common knowledge about the story from the audience. Ebed-Melech (literally “servant of the king” for you non-Hebraists) is obviously not his real name, but apparently the author thinks his actions, his office and his ethnicity are more important to note than his real name. As I look through my past lessons and sermons, I see a couple of other characters in those passages who have a similar profile. The widow Elijah stayed with in the land of Sidon in 1 Kings 16. The Canaanite woman who calls out after Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28. All of these have in common that they are not identified by name, but by ethnicity and some other characteristic. And I think these characters, and others I’m sure I will stumble across as minor characters in the metanarrative, teach us some significant things.
They are all part of the overarching story of God’s relationship with the Jewish people, but none of them are Jews. Yet they all show faith and are rewarded by God for their faith. These are reminders, before the book of Romans spells it all out for us, that God’s people are recognized not by ethnicity or circumcision but by faith, no matter what their ancestry. This is something to be very grateful for as gentiles. Our people received revelation later than the privileged Jews, and we ought to remember and give thanks for God’s willingness to extend salvation beyond his chosen nation and graft us into his people. If it’s notable when non-Jews demonstrate faith, then we should view it as notable when we non-Jews receive salvation, and give thanks for it.
These examples are part of a recurring pattern in Scripture of faith appearing in unlikely people and places. When it comes to assurance of salvation, these are a reminder that those who seem to have things going for them because they are associated with religion are not always the ones who show faith in the Lord. I think we ought to be careful in quickly assuring people of salvation based on words they said or on their associations with lots of other believers. When people doubt salvation, it ought to be an impetus to examine their actions and motives to determine whether the fruit of the gospel of grace is in their lives. I doubt anyone would have picked Ebed-Melech over the Jewish officials as most likely to be saved from death before the circumstances played out. I doubt anyone would have picked the Canaanite woman to receive special favor from God incarnate while the Pharisees received criticism instead, but her desperate pleas from sincere faith surprise us. Let us point people to fruits of conversion for assurance, not formulaic prayers and secure social connections with church people.
If these characters play a part and their names are never remembered, I guess they are a lot like most of us. How many people who play roles that are great in the kingdom of God will never be remembered by name in future generations? Yet our acts done in faith and worship will have a lasting effect. If no one can remember my name, will my acts of faith be worth remembering? Do I have the humility to accept being a nameless player in the drama of God’s redemptive action in the world?

1 comment:

VentiAmericano said...

A teacher I had at TMC liked to say that the theme of Judges was God's using of unlikely people in unlikely ways. So true! You've hit on a major theme in the Bible (and Church history, huh?)
Let's become missionaries and try to help the nations be glad!

By the way, you said that Romans was about God's work with Jews and Gentiles, but everyone knows that "Justification by faith" is the central theme of Romans. [Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. In other words, I'm joking.]