As the people of our nation become less and less familiar with the Bible we are seeing more and more instances of a total misrepresentation of the Christian faith, God, Jesus, and the Bible. We’ve come to the place today where many Americans view Christianity as the product of white Republicans. Because we’ve lost an understanding of history, specifically the history of God’s dealings with His people going back to Abraham, we have many people of color believing that Jesus is the white man’s Messiah. You can hear this message today and you will hear it more and more as we continue to witness the fragmentation of our culture and society.
The Bible tells the story of God’s story of redemption. It’s not a story which begins in America, but it begins thousands of years ago in the Middle East and spread throughout the whole world. What I want to do this morning is to give you a few examples of the rich diversity of people that are found within the story of the Bible. Once we are able to better understand the rich diversity found in the pages of the Bible, I would like for us to think about the “why” and “how” of what we have discovered. By “how” and “why” I mean, “Why should I spend my time becoming even more familiar with the stories in the Bible about how God interacted with diverse people groups?” and “How can I take the stories and teachings from the Bible and utilize them in my everyday life?”
Before we launch into our main objective this morning I would like to give you a little background about myself. I am from Duncan, OK. I grew up in locker rooms and not in churches during my formative years. It was in those locker rooms that I, for the first time in my life, had an opportunity to get to know people that were “different” than me. By different I don’t just mean kids whose skin color was different than mine. I also got to know kids whose parents were wealthy, kids whose parents went to college and had multiple college degrees. The teams I played on through college were diverse in many ways.
Playing sports and getting to know teammates who were “different” from me prepared me for the message that I found in God’s Word, once I became a follower of Jesus Christ. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about. In Acts 17, Paul was speaking to a group of Greek erudite scholars. They were men who would gather in the halls of academia, a place they called the Areopagus, and they would share ideas and theories all day long. When Paul went to Athens, he met these men and had an opportunity to speak to them. Listen to what happened.
19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) 22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. 24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. 27 God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:19-27 NIV)
Paul told the thinkers of his day that God made us all and that He is intimately, so intimately involved in each and every one of our lives. How intimately involved is He? Well, Paul said that He gives all people life, breath, and everything else. He made, from one common ancestor the people who form every nation. He determines the day we are born and the day we will die. He even determines the exact places where each and every one of us lives—from Oklahoma City to Ojo de Agua, Mexico to Okinawa, Japan to Onitsha, Nigeria, to Oslo, Norway and every place in between.
God has done this. He is the Creator of each and every person who has lived or will ever live. And we will see in just a few minutes that He calls, commands us, to love each and every one of the people that He has made. We are to value all people. Not just those who can help us out. Not just those that we are comfortable in being around. Not just those who are like us, or who like us, but all people. Because of my experience growing up in locker rooms with others who were different than me this message resonated with me. I was prepared to hear this message outside of a church.
Well, that gives you a little background about who I am and where I am coming from so let’s move on. I want to begin our discussion by turning to the pages of the Hebrew Bible, what most of you know as the Old Testament. It is interesting that in our day there are many, many people who draw a broad, dark line of demarcation between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In their minds, the Hebrew Bible is filled with the “God of wrath” and the New Testament is filled with the “God of love.” Well, I beg to differ. In the Hebrew Bible we find God choosing, not a Jewish man, but a Chaldean man, modern-day Iraq, named Abraham and telling him,
17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:17-18 NIV)
The rest of the Hebrew Bible is the telling of the story of how God did just what He promised. He chose Abraham for a special purpose. He chose the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, to be ministers to the rest of the nations. As the story is told concerning how God worked through His people we find God blessing and using men and women, rich and poor, Israelites, and people from other nations to accomplish His purposes. Let me share just a few of their stories.
First, in Genesis 41:44-46 we read about an interesting turn of events in the life of Joseph. Joseph had eleven brothers and his father was Jacob. Joseph’s brothers didn’t like him at all so they sold him into slavery and he ended up in Egypt. Through an interesting turn of events Joseph ended up as the right hand man to Pharaoh. Let me read you the passage from Genesis 41.
44 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh, but without your word no one will lift hand or foot in all Egypt.” 45 Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt. 46 Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from Pharaoh’s presence and traveled throughout Egypt. (Genesis 41:44-46 NIV)
So Joseph was given an Egyptian name, an Egyptian wife, and not just any Egyptian wife. Asenath was the daughter of Potiphera, one of the priests of On. “On” was a center for “sun worship.” So Joseph married a pagan priest’s daughter. Just five chapters later in Genesis we read that Joseph and Asenath had two sons while they were living in Egypt, Manasseh and Ephraim. Joseph’s sons were half Egyptian.
In Genesis 48, we find one of the most moving stories in the Hebrew Bible. Joseph got word that his dad was dying so he and his family traveled to see his dad. Jacob, the Patriarch, says,
11 Then Jacob said to Joseph, “I never thought I would see your face again, but now God has let me see your children, too!” (Genesis 48:11 NLT)
Jacob adopted the half Egyptian boys as his very own in verse 5. He laid his hands on their heads and blesses them, and then in verse 20 he says,
20 He blessed them that day and said, “In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.'” (Genesis 48:20 NIV)
Ephraim and Manasseh were given full rights as Jacobs’s children. They are listed as part of the twelve tribes of Israel, and to this day on Friday evening, Orthodox Jews all over the world lay their hands on the heads of their sons and bless them like this, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
I want to share another story with you from the Hebrew Bible. In Numbers 12:1, Moses married a woman. The Hebrew reads that he married a “???????” (koo-sheeth’) woman. In some Bible translations the word is translated, “Cushite,” but in the King James Version it is translated, “Ethiopian.” Moses’ sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aaron, didn’t like Moses’ choice at all. Were they upset because their brother married a foreigner, a non-Jew, or were they upset because Moses married a black woman? Scripture doesn’t tell us, but we do know that they were indignant. God entered into the discussion and called Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to the Tabernacle. God confirmed His choice of Moses as the leader of the Hebrews who had left Egypt and when the Cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, Miriam was covered with leprosy. God sided with Moses, but He also sided with the Cushite woman. Later, God spoke through the prophet Amos, to His people the Israelites, and said,
7 “Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9:7 NIV)
God let His people, the Israelites, know that He was just as intimately involved in the lives of the Cushites, Philistines, Arameans, and the other people of the world as He was involved with them. He is a God of purpose who has a purpose for all the people of the world.
Let me share with you another story. As I mentioned to you earlier, the story of the Hebrew Bible is a story of God’s dealings with people, specifically how God chose the Hebrews and called them to be a set-apart people for the good and betterment of the world, to be ministers to the world. Well, that didn’t work out so well. The Jews saw themselves as “special” people, rather than people with a special purpose, a calling to serve the nations. As a result, God would discipline His people. He would allow foreign nations to come in and humble them from time-to-time. The United Nation of Israel split into two separate nations, Judah and Israel, after the time of King Solomon. Then, in 721 B.C. the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Less than one hundred and fifty years later the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Holy City of Jerusalem were conquered by the Babylonians. The Jews were carried into exile by the mighty Babylonians. It was not a good time for the Jews. It was a painful period in Jewish history. We can get a sense of how desperate, despondent, and painful that period was by reading Psalm 137.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4 NIV)
While there was heartache and sorrow in the hearts of the Hebrews living as exiles in Babylon, God was working in Persia. “In Persia, modern-day Iran?” you may wonder? You better believe it.
In Persia there was a king named Cyrus. Cyrus ruled over the Persian Empire for about 30 years, from 559-530 B.C., and he was a conqueror. He conquered the Empire of the Medes, the Lydian Empire, and then he conquered the Babylonians as well. What is really interesting is that we read about this Persian king in the Bible in several different places. Let me share with you from the prophet Isaiah.
1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut: 2 I will go before you and will level the mountains; I will break down gates of bronze and cut through bars of iron. 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, who summons you by name. (Isaiah 45:1-3 NIV)
Those are pretty amazing words to be spoken about a Persian king don’t you think? These are not the words of those in Cyrus’ court; these are the words of YHWH. He calls Cyrus His “????????” (mashiyach), His “anointed one.” This is the same word from which we get the word, “Messiah.”
God blessed Cyrus. He didn’t just bless the Jews. His blessings flow through people of every tribe, nation, and language. In turn, Cyrus, the Persian king, blessed the Jews who were living in Babylon. Cyrus signed an edict allowing the Jews to go back to their homeland. That’s not all he did. In Ezra 1 we can read the letter Cyrus sent with them and we can see what he sent along with the Jews. Listen to this.
2 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: ” ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Anyone of his people among you–may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.'” (Ezra 1:2-4 NIVO)
I could go on and on in telling you stories about the rich diversity of people who are found in the pages of the Bible and how God has blessed people from all walks of life. Let me share another story with you.
Naomi was an Israelite woman who, during a famine, had gone with her family to live in the country of Moab. Her sons had married two Moabite women. When her husband and two sons died, she decided to return to her hometown, Bethlehem. She had two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. All three women were widows.
In modern society a widow is free to remarry after her husband dies, but in ancient Israel this was not necessarily so. After her husband’s death the widow was still considered to be a part of her dead husband’s family, because marriage joined families as well as individuals.
Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were Moabite women not Israelites. The Moabite people were traditional enemies of the Israelites. There was frequent warfare between the two groups. According to the Israelite belief, Moabites originated from the act of incest between Lot and his older daughter (Genesis 19:30-38), and so the whole nation was intrinsically tainted and inferior. Naomi assumed that Ruth and Orpah would not want to return to Bethlehem with her, even though the women respected and loved each other, so she told them to return to their families.
Orpah decided to return to her people and the Moabite way of life, but Ruth could not be persuaded. Ruth loved her mother-in-law, they had shared much heartache together, and she was not about to turn back now. Listen to their discussion.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:15-17 NIV)
For the sake of time, Ruth and Naomi went back to Bethlehem where Ruth eventually married Boaz and they had a son named Obed. Ruth, the Moabite, is the great grandmother of David, the greatest king in the history of Israel. If you look at the genealogy of Jesus you will find a woman named Ruth, a Moabite, listed in Jesus’ family tree.
If you will allow me just a couple more minutes, I promise I will stop. Did you know that one of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible was a Cushite? If you read the opening verses of Zephaniah you will read,
1 The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah: (Zephaniah 1:1 NIV)
Some have argued that “Cushi” is a proper name, but it is much more likely that it was a “gentilic” designation for those people who came from what we know in our day as Sudan and Ethiopia. We read in The New Interpreter’s Bible,
This form of the word [Cushi], whether taken as a proper name or as an ethnic designation, regularly points in biblical usage to Israel’s darker hued neighbors to the south, peoples from Egypt, and the extended regions of the Nile valley. (Robert A. Bennet – The New Interpreter’s Bible. pg. 670 Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1996.)
Zephaniah was the descendant of the great king Hezekiah and he was the descendant of a Cushite. There are two other men in Scripture who are called by the very name as Zephaniah’s father. There is the runner of Joab in 2 Samuel 18:21-32 who carried the message of Absalom’s death back to his father, King David. Then we have the great-grandfather of Jehudi, the scribe found in Jeremiah 26:14.l
I tried to share some stories with you that illustrate the diversity of the people God used, men and women, people from different countries, and with different ethnic backgrounds. There’s also socio-economic diversity represented in the Bible. In 1 Kings 17 we read a story about a widow from Sidon. The most famous resident of Sidon found in the Bible is a woman named Jezebel. Jezebel is described in the Bible as the antithesis of what a godly woman should be. Jezebel was the daughter of the Sidonian king, Ethbaal, and she was married to the Israelite king, Ahab. Jezebel came from immense wealth. She was a blue-blood with all of the advantages in life that come from a prominent family, and yet she was a murderer and chief antagonist of God’s people.
Set against this dark backdrop of Jezebel’s life is a nameless Sidonian widow who meets God’s prophet Elijah. While Elijah was on the run from Jezebel who was trying to kill him, God instructed Elijah to go to “Zarephath of Sidon.” God told Elijah that a widow would supply him with food. When Elijah arrived he asked the widow for a piece of bread and some water. She said she only had a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. She told Elijah, “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.” (1 Kings 17:12 NIV) Elijah told her not to be afraid. He promised her that God would supply her needs. He also told her to make him some food first, before she made anything for herself or her son. She did as she was told and her story is recorded for us to marvel at to this day.
In our day there are many who would like nothing more than to create animosity and bitterness between the rich and the poor. According to one stream of thinking, the rich are evil and the poor are as pristine and unblemished as the wind-driven snow. The rich care nothing for the poor and the poor will never be anything but poor because they will always have the rich holding them down. According to another line of thinking, the poor are less than, they are to be subservient to the wealthy among us. We need to have the poor around because we need laborers, but beyond that, the poor really have no real inherent value to society.
The Bible teaches an altogether different reality. All people have value, inherent, intrinsic value because God has made them and given them purpose in life. Rich and poor people of every shade and hue, both men and women, have worth and value to God. What an incredibly powerful discovery!
God doesn’t hold the poor before us as models of character and integrity any more than He holds the wealthy before us as models of character and integrity. We read in Genesis that God blessed Abraham so that his herds increased immensely. In 1 Kings 3 we read that it was God who blessed Solomon with incredible wealth. We learn in the Bible that it is not what you have, but what you do with what you have that is of greatest importance. When we think that we have achieved whatever modicum of wealth, intelligence, giftedness, or any other asset that we possess by our own ingenuity or effort then we are headed for trouble. God warned the Israelites as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land.
17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NIV)
Remembering is of great importance is it not? We need to remember Who it is that has made us, blessed us, and called us to live in a distinctive way in this diverse world full of unlimited possibilities to engage in life with all kinds of people. If we don’t we will fall into the ways of the world and view some as better, more desirable, more deserving than others.
August 27, 2017