Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Happy Accidents

My college painting teacher had a name for improbable color choices or brushstroke combinations that gave a pleasing and unexpectedly-mature aesthetic to student-level work.

He called them “happy accidents”.

Most often he was correct. Sometimes things happen at random that just work.

Every morning I enjoy a reading from the Old Testament and a reading from the New. Since the two Testaments are of different lengths, and since my original starting points in each volume were random and my pace is consistent, the combination of chapters I read each time I work my way through the Bible is different from the previous pass, and probably will be as long as I live. The likelihood of deliberately synchronizing two thematically-similar passages, one of which informs the other, is zero. And yet it seems to happen to me all the time.

I try not to read too much into that. Perhaps these are the Bible-reading equivalent of happy accidents. After all, there is enough common thematic material to the Old and New Testaments that a harmonious coincidence is bound to occur once in a while, right?

Right. But when it happens twice in one week? Well, you tell me ...

1/ Melchizedek King of Salem

First, my morning reading in Genesis from last weekend:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,

‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

Followed by the same day’s reading in Hebrews:

“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything ... See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.”

Turns out the Old Testament historical episode informs the New Testament theological commentary about the same man.

Happy accident, right?

2/ Sarah Considered

Then there’s this one. Today’s morning reading in Genesis, a few chapters further on:

“So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid. He said, ‘No, but you did laugh.’ ”

And now here is the Hebrews reading the same number of chapters later:

“By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.”

Again, the Old Testament reading informs the commentary of Hebrews, this time on a completely different subject having nothing to do with the priesthood of the Lord Jesus.

It’s There, But I Just Didn’t See It

But there’s more to it, isn’t there, and I guess it goes to the way in which the guidance of the Holy Spirit operates in interpreting what he has earlier written.

In the first case, the writer to the Hebrews finds something in the historical Melchizedek incident that I would never have dug out for myself, but could have, perhaps, if I were mature enough in the faith and paying sufficient attention. The portion I quoted is everything that Genesis has to say about Abraham’s encounter with the “priest of God Most High”. In the historical account, we rightly concentrate on the history. Perhaps it is the blessing or the tithe that catch our interest, but the encounter is over in four sentences, and Abraham is on to the next thing.

At the far end of the Bible, the writer to the Hebrews points out that Melchizedek is a picture of Christ and the prototype for a new and vastly superior priestly order established on the basis of his death and resurrection. I haven’t quoted much of what he tells us as he opens up the Genesis passage and imputes to Melchizedek an easily-missed spiritual significance, but even the tithe turns out to be important, since it proves the Melchizedek priesthood superior to the Levitical priesthood with which the Jewish readers of Hebrews were familiar, and which they would surely regard as the final word in priestly ministry.

In this case, there is something there in the history we wouldn’t normally see. Yet it’s there all the same, and the power of the commentary is that we can see it too, and be persuaded by his argument, just as so many Hebrews were surely once persuaded to continue in the Way rather than returning to their roots in Judaism.

It’s Not There, So How Could I Possibly See It?

In the second case, something a little different is happening. Sarah is commended in Hebrews for faith we simply don’t see on display in Genesis, probably because that faith was absent during the period covered by the historical text. Instead, hearing God’s promise, Sarah laughed to herself. The reader’s natural conclusion is that she doubted, which is arguably the opposite of faith. That is what God implies when he says to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh?” He does not attribute her reaction to joy at the news of a child to be born to her, but rather to Sarah finding his announcement so shocking and unlikely as to be humorous. So now Sarah fears, and even denies she has laughed, but of course God knows the truth.

But the writer to the Hebrews assures us it was Sarah’s faith that enabled her to conceive. When did that faith become concrete? What was that faith based on? Not on God’s original promise, but on his correction of her initial reaction to the news. Far from becoming angry with her, God replies, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” God’s insistence that he will do what he has promised wins Sarah over.

Perhaps it is the reminder of his power in the reproachful “Is anything too hard?” Perhaps it is the Lord’s grace in repeating himself when he didn’t have to. Perhaps it is the fact that God knew exactly what she was thinking. We don’t know. But surely it is this overheard exchange between her husband and God himself that changes Sarah’s thinking and kicks her faith into gear.

Bottom line: it is possible for absent faith to be kindled by reconsidering the data presented to it.

Burning Wicks

Hey, I can relate. This happens to me all the time. Confronted with the difficult truths that come out of God’s mouth, I initially push back. But time changes that. Once I have a few minutes to reconsider what God actually said, I generally find myself coming around. So far, the Lord has been inordinately patient with me; I have been allowed to work through my belief issues at my own pace.

I love the idea that God went out of his way to ensure Sarah had what she needed to exercise the faith by which God fulfilled his promise to her. He didn’t have to. He could have coerced her compliance with the merest thought, and she wouldn’t have ever known the difference. There are schools of theology that would maintain that’s what God does. Or he could have manipulated her, as Sarah tried to manipulate her own circumstances and produced Ishmael instead of the heir of the promise.

But that’s not our God, is it. He doesn’t break bruised reeds or quench faintly burning wicks. He props up the ailing plant, and he fans the guttering spark into glorious flame. God first props up Sarah’s ailing faith, then goes on to commend her for something she couldn’t possibly have accomplished on her own, making her a model for us. That’s unbelievably gracious and fantastically reassuring.

It’s also something I would never discern without the New Testament commentary on the Genesis account, and I’ll guarantee the writer to the Hebrews would never have discerned it without the moving of the Holy Spirit in his own heart and mind.

So are such “coincidences” just happy accidents, or does the Lord occasionally use the patterns of discipline we adopt in obedience to him in ways we couldn’t anticipate?

I know what I think. Your mileage may vary.

No comments :

Post a Comment