So that they might find God

Always interesting to read ancient literature (OK made me sound as if I am very well-read… I simply mean the Bible!!) and think about what world view is being expressed. Normally ancient world-views of (say) cosmology are not ‘corrected’ but the conclusions drawn about God are certainly not simply a mirror of the other contemporaneous cultures. Creation is like that… even more basic than a flat earth (thank God for the firmament (sky) that stops the water leaking through – not a 2023 weather forecast framework), but the God revealed is not the god(s) who has humans providing food for the gods… other way round. God is for us; we are not here to appease this God. Jumping forward we read that Paul in Athens gave some amazing perspectives:

From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we, too, are his offspring.’ (Acts 17: 26-28).

One humanity: maybe Paul believed in a literal ‘Adam and Eve’, maybe he did and we don’t have to. If so it would not make us smarter than Paul, simply that we live in different eras. It is not what we know, it is how we live that is the measure. Whatever we believe about (scientific) origins, there is one humanity. Hence all war is civil war.

God is close to all, and even stronger than that, is that of the boundaries and times are not in place in order that God would not be found. ‘So that… find him’. We do not have to deny any insight (revelation?) about God in other faiths to affirm the uniqueness of Christ. Christ is final – Heb. 1 – and he is not simply the way to God but the way through which we know who this God is, that this God is in familiar relationship with us, for Jesus is ‘the way… to the Father‘.

Boundaries… Paul is clearly reflecting on a foundational understanding from Deuteronomy, where we read:

When the Most High apportioned the nations,
    when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
    according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
    Jacob his allotted share (Deut. 32:8,9).

We have 2 manuscript strands – according to the number of the ‘gods’ (sons of God: angelic) or sons of Israel. The former seems stronger, but regardless we have God fixing the boundaries and this is clearly what Paul is acknowledging. However…

He speaks these words in the context of the Imperial rule of Rome. That which establishes its own boundaries (termed oikoumene) and one that ignored previous boundaries. Is Paul now acknowledging that Rome’s universal boundary is the one God has established and set in place, or is he suggesting that at the same time as the Empire sets its boundaries that we should be looking for the boundaries that people inhabit so that they might (stumble around – yes, but) find God?

We see artificial boundaries that have been set – Africa set by Europe; colonial rule drawing arbitrary boundaries in many places. I reflect back some 20+ years ago I was given a ceremonial arrow by a native American chief to give me safe travel in and out of ‘north America’. Those first-nations did not recognise the 49th parallel, knew their own territory, and sought to outwork what it meant that fellow-nations occupied other territory within the wider land (not trying to idealise the situation; am well aware that they did not all co-habit singing ‘kumbaya’ around a shared camp fire).

[I appreciate that there are various views about ‘Brexit’, but to use the Bible on ‘nations’ to suggest that God wants to give ‘sovereignty’ to the UK for example is to suggest that ‘nation’ and ‘nation-state’ are the same I think is to miss what is going on…]

I am playing with the idea that we have boundaries at two levels. Ones that are imposed… no problem working within those – Paul worked within the Empire and simply used the Roman names for the various territories where he travelled; and perhaps boundaries that are from the land – if from the land then more likely to be ‘from God’.

God is at work… and at work in structures that are far from perfect. Maybe the EU weakens the pull to arrogant sovereignty. Maybe it suggests we are one people.

Maybe the various pulls for independence – the breaking up of the UK – is an imperfect shadow of a God movement that emphasises there are boundaries that cannot be imposed through powers that say so elsewhere.

Maybe the future will be more based in the locality, in the city, in the regions. Maybe that might help uncover God-boundaries, that will align us more with ‘the sons of God’ and enable a greater amount of positive stumbling so that God might be found?

All very speculative, but I suspect something is going on. If so we should expect all kinds of disputes over boundaries.

And back to Paul… he spoke those words into the one-boundary scenario of the Roman Empire. No need to fear Imperial power; but the need to affirm God-boundaries without needing to impose them. They will be discovered, and I am sure there are many overlapping boundaries.

Boundaries and inheritance

A number of years ago I was in Sacramento, maybe some 20 years ago and I was with a group of people who were looking at the ‘Church beyond the congregation’ (Thank you Mr. Jim T). At one point the person hosting asked someone to share her story. She worked in a Credit Union and was part of the department that had to follow through with people whose debt was a significant problem, making contact by phone. The sharp end for some unpleasant conversations. She explained that she began to realise that she could not view being in work as simply so that she could earn some money. After all God was her Provider. She then came across Ps. 16:6,

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage (NRSV).

The boundary line so have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance. (NIV)

The clear implication is that within the boundary lines there is an inheritance. She began to thank God for her boundary lines at work, and began to ask for the inheritance within those boundaries. She went on to explain (humbly) that recently they had had in-house training for her department, and at the end of the session the trainer said, ‘But if truth be out, and you really want to work well here, talk to Rose (not her real name) for we have so many commendations from our clients about her work.’

She had called people as they were planning their suicide and averted that giving them hope, she had contacted people and had been able to share wisdom that had saved them from yet more debt; the bank had received calls and letters saying what a credit she was to them and how much she had helped them.

That story has stuck with me. First, a move to acknowledge the boundary as coming from heaven, then seeking to uncover the inheritance there, that inheritance always will involve what we can be for someone else, how we can at some level become a ‘life-giving spirit’.

Our boundaries will always be challenged. I suggest two of the main ways is through jealousy or through intimidation. Jealousy will always seek to displace us, to dislocate us (and one of the reasons why a percentage of joint issues are rooted in jealousy that has been unleashed against us, Proverbs informing us that though anger is cruel, jealousy is at another level and asks if we can even stand against it). Jealousy results in an encroachement on our boundaries, that piece of land that is indeed ours. This encroachement is warned against:

Do not remove the ancient landmark that your ancestors set up (Prov 22:28).

Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong;
he will plead their cause against you (Prov 23:10,11).

You must not move your neighbor’s boundary marker, set up by former generations, on the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess (Deut. 19:14).

Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor’s boundary marker.” All the people shall say, “Amen!” (Deut 27:17).

The princes of Judah have become like those who remove the landmark; on them I will pour out my wrath like water (Hos. 5:10).

God does not take too kindly to it when we get involved in boundary moving and seek to encroach on another’s sphere. It was there in the original plan for the land, and thankfully even when there was bad stewardship the boundaries were to be restored in the year of Jubilee.

Jealousy and also intimidation to push someone back from their allotted place.

We can stand, even if Proverbs says ‘who can stand’. And stand we must, being the one central instruction in the ‘spiritual warfare’ (for this read ‘life’) passage. When the day of evil comes, stand, stand firm, withstand… That is important as the demonic (opposition in life) has a limitation on it location / territorial wise and time-wise. If we hold our boundaries then we restrict the location aspect and if we hold in the time frame will change.

In the middle of the passage on Gideon’s army we come across a statement that, ‘While each person held their position around the camp, all the Midianites ran, crying out as they fled’. Their position. No comparison, no competition, no jealousy, no intimidation, no inordinate fear of inadequacy, no seeking to comply to someone else’s view of us, etc… Just here are my boundaries (one day they might increase) and in them I am something for someone else as I have an inheritance here.