Learning to Claim the Blood
The Fifteenth Sunday After Trinity
Learning to Claim the Blood
A couple of weeks ago Marjorie and I watched “The Hiding Place.” You know the story: The profoundly faithful and courageous Ten Boom family of Harlem, the Netherlands, join an underground railroad concealing Jews and spiriting them out of the country before the occupying Nazis can descend on them.
Eventually, the Nazis catch out the family and hail down on them in a storm of swastikas. Corrie, the daughter who survives to tell the tale, and her equally brave sister Betsie land in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where they thank God for the lice because the German guards will not enter the barracks on their account.
The sisters are free to minister the gospel to their fellow prisoners without interference.
One scene early in the movie jumped out at me, no doubt because I was thinking through this sermon on Abraham and Melchizedek from Genesis 14.
A young German officer has taken an interest in the family. Papa Ten Boom runs a clock-and-watch shop and his wife and children work in the business. The German is the son of a watch-maker and so sees them as kindred spirits. After all, we’re all gentiles, aren’t we?
They think not. Corrie takes him to task for the reign of terror the Nazis have instigated in the town. The German replies soothingly, “These measures are only temporary. When order has been restored, men will live together as brothers in the kingdom of our reich.”
Corrie answers sharply, “Men live together as brothers only in the kingdom of our Lord.”
And so we see the ancient rift, yawning long and wide as the Grand Canyon: over here, the kingdom of man; over there, the kingdom of God. There is no bridge spanning the great chasm between them. No one holds two passports, and only God can grant a change in citizenship.
Has it not ever been thus? When the Visigoths sacked Rome early in the fifth century many citizens pinned the blame on the national conversion from paganism to Christianity. St. Augustine took pen in hand to set out this principle of two kingdoms in his masterwork “City of God.”
But even way back then, there was nothing new under the sun. The picture emerges clearly in Genesis – for those who have eyes to see.
Genesis is a book of beginnings. God has begun anew after the great flood with Noah and his family and now again after the Tower of Babel with Abraham and his modest crew. Abraham personifies the beginning of the final beginning.
He will grow into a tribe and then a nation. He will be the father of many nations. God has entered into an everlasting covenant with him. The Redeemer of the world, the Seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3, will come from him.
But – like you and me – Abraham has feet of clay. Yahweh has scarcely commissioned him to serve as a blessing to the gentiles – “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3) — when he goes to Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan, the Promised Land.
Here is a divinely appointed opportunity to proclaim the good news that Yahweh is Lord over all the nations and wants to shower His rich blessings down upon them. What does Abraham do? Because his wife Sarah is beautiful and the Egyptians will covet her, he instructs her to pose as his sister. That way, the Egyptians will not kill him to take her.
Abraham has followed in the feckless footsteps of Adam; he has failed to protect the wife God gave him.
And it does no good to entertain the quibble that Sarah was in fact his half-sister. Aren’t such half-truths the way most of us try to dance around our Lord’s commandments? Abraham was practicing deceit.
Lo and behold, Pharaoh hears of her surpassing beauty and takes her into his harem. He cannot know that Yahweh has anointed her to bear the child of the covenant through whom the blessing will pass – and the father of that child must be Abraham.
Before Pharaoh consummates the relationship, Yahweh rains down “great plagues” upon his house. Pharaoh, learning her true identity, sends her and her husband away. Rather than bless a great gentile ruler and represent Yahweh to him, Abraham has lied to him and brought down God’s curse upon him.
But for Abraham’s dereliction, the kingdom of God might have advanced mightily in that day, winning over a great and ancient pagan civilization. Abraham’s descendants will pay a horrific price for his failure when the Egyptians make slaves of them.
But God is merciful and longsuffering. Abraham grows in faith and courage. Back in Canaan, a dispute arises between his herdsmen and those of his nephew Lot over range for grazing. Abraham defers, blessing Lot with his choice of land. God approves.
And now a new challenge arises. For the first time, the word “war” appears in the Holy Scriptures.
The five pagan kings of Canaan rebel against their Eastern overlord, Chedorlaomer. Leading a coalition of three other kings, he thrashes them in battle, plunders their possessions and departs. He takes Lot and the women of Sodom into captivity.
“Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, for he dwelt by the terebinth trees of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner; and they were allies with Abram. Now when Abram heard that his brother (technically, the son of his brother) was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.
“He divided his forces against them by night, and he and his servants attacked them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. So he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his brother Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the people” (14:13-16).
When the first organized armies replaced the isolated forces of bedlam and carnage, ratcheting up the level of mayhem and massacre; when the world was near spinning anew out of its orbit and into a spiral of violence and chaos as before the great flood, God’s man intervened and imposed order in the name of the Creator.
Beloved, God’s ways are too high and mysterious to be apprehended by me, a humble, naturalized Okie preacher. But let me make bold to venture that we behold today the first case of God’s using the means of the kingdom of man to demonstrate at one and the same time the superiority of the kingdom of God and the ultimate futility of the weapons of the kingdom of man.
Abraham will claim no durable victory; more wars will rage. But God has set in motion His plan of redemption to be effected in the end by Abraham’s descendent, a man named Jesus. Until He comes, and comes again, man must witness the horrors his methods loose. He must bathe in his own blood until he learns to claim the blood of his Savior as his defense. Only then will he cease to give offense.
God will exert enough control to keep the lid on, using army to repel army, nation to chastise nation. And all the while He will allow the fallen angel Satan leeway to walk to and fro upon the earth, seducing men into the kingdom he rules until his realm is vanquished once and for all.
“And the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him. Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High.
“And he blessed him and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And he gave him a tithe of all” (14:17-20).
Before Abraham encounters the king of Sodom, to whom he is returning the captured people and goods, Melchizedek appears. In the literature, one word is applied to Melchizedek so frequently it begins to sound like a first name: Enigmatic Melchizedek.
What do we know of him? He is a gentile, he is king of Salem, which we know from the Psalms to be Jerusalem. Yet while a gentile, he serves El Elyon – God Most High, the God of Abraham. He is God’s priest – and here is another first. Until now, the Scriptures have identified no one as a priest.
He brings not bread and water, the usual refreshment for a weary traveler, but bread and wine, a royal meal. Some among the church fathers saw a prefiguring of the Eucharist in this; most modern scholars are more restrained.
This mysterious personage blesses Abraham as the envoy of God Most High, whom he acknowledges as “Possessor of heaven and earth” and then he declares that it is God who has given Abraham the victory. Abraham pays him a tithe, or tenth part, of the spoils of war.
This is a reversal of the usual order of things on a staggering scale. Abraham has vanquished the most powerful king in the known world, and done so with a much smaller force. Who is mightier than he?
Yet Melchizedek greets him in a familiar way, and blesses him. The greater always blesses the lesser. Abraham pays a tithe to him. The lesser always pays a tithe to the greater. Having conquered the mighty warrior Cherdorlaomer, Abraham pays homage to this priest named Melchizedek.
Melchizedek reappears in Psalm 110, the psalm most frequently cited in the New Testament. Its author, King David, designates his descendant Jesus as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4). God Most High tells His ascended Son, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
God will deliver all of the enemies of His kingdom into the hand of this One who follows in the priesthood of Melchizedek, who turns up again in Hebrews 7:
“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham gave a tenth part of all, first being translated ‘king of righteousness,’ and then also king of Salem, meaning ‘king of peace,’ without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually. Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of the spoils” (1-4).
Christ, the author of Hebrews would have us know, is the Mediator of a new covenant, superior to that regulated by the priesthood descended from Aaron. Before Israel, Melchizedek was. But more than that, before the world, Melchizedek was. Christ traces His priestly lineage to this king of righteousness and peace who remains a priest forever.
What do we know of him? We know he has recognized God’s blessing on Abraham according to the covenant first set out in chapter 12, when Yahweh called him out of Ur of the Chaldees. We surmise that Abraham, having received a blessing, returned the blessing, as custom demanded.
This man God had appointed to be a light unto the gentiles, a blessing unto the nations; who had failed so miserably in Egypt, has begun to grow into the role God has set out for him.
One more episode remains:
“Now the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the goods for yourself.’ But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, the Possessor of heaven and earth, that I will take nothing, from a thread to a sandal strap, and that I will not take anything that is yours, lest you should say, `I have made Abram rich’ — except only what the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men who went with me: Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion” (14:21-24).
This king of Sodom should be gurgling gratitude toward Abraham, who by right may retain all the spoils, including the people, he captured. Instead the king demands the return of the people, perhaps for use as slaves.
Abraham wants none of it. He can scarcely return what his troops have eaten and he will allow his allies their share, but he will retain nothing for himself. He has resolved to be a blessing, even to those who treat him with contempt. As he had blessed his kinsman Lot with the best land, he blesses this insolent gentile with the restoration of his people and his goods.
Melchizedek is both priest and king, an ambassador of the kingdom of God and a type of the union of religion and civil government in the perfected state. Sodom’s monarch is merely another petty king, a representative of the kingdom of man.
Abraham has made his choice – to bless both. In him all the nations of earth will be blessed. His victory is from God. It must be celebrated before God according to His commandment in His kingdom.
This, beloved, is the lesson the world refuses to learn – from the king of Sodom to the Visigoths to the Nazis and beyond. All creation belongs to God, all blessing comes from God, all glory is owed to God, all victory is destined for God.
The Roman Catholic Church summed up well at Vatican II in the 1960s:
“. . .all of human life, whether individual or collective, shows itself to be a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness . . . The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.”
Yet we continue to seek to establish the kingdom of man.
A humble, naturalized Okie preacher is not a prophet. I do not know if God will use another nation or nations to chastise our own. I do know that we are driving ever deeper into the kingdom of man.
As a nation, we get the leaders we deserve. The current presidential contest should demonstrate to anyone with eyes to see that we have cast off our moorings to any code of morality, decency, humility and respect – for others and for ourselves.
We stand at the graveside of the American Dream, the notion that an always-rising tide of prosperity should carry every generation to a higher crest of wealth and comfort than the one before. We react not by thanking God for the countless blessings He continues to pour down upon us but by lashing out at Him for failing to deliver all we deserve.
We look for fulfillment in the kingdom of man when it can only be found in the kingdom of God. Do not fail to note the final verse of our passage, 15:1:
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’”
Yet all these millennia later Abraham’s descendants continue to search for their reward in the material world. We ignore the lesson of our patriarch at our peril: All of our time, talent and treasure are from God and reveal God and are owed to God.
Abraham struggled to achieve this understanding . . . but he finally got it. May we follow him out of darkness and into the light. Amen.Posted on: September 4, 2016Ed Fowler