Looking outside the frame – a Christmas message

Looking outside the frame

Sermon preached at Bramley St Margaret, 23 December 2018

(c) Stephen Craven 2018

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 / Luke 21:29-36

A few weeks ago I was sat on the bus, going into Leeds, when a young woman, possibly an art student, came and sat next to me.  She was carrying an empty picture frame – a large one, perhaps a metre high – and apologised as she slid it in front of our seats.  I asked what she was framing; she said, disappointedly, that large as it was, this frame was not large enough.  The picture she had was even bigger and would have to be cut down to fit the frame.  Bear that image in mind.

For the last three weeks of Advent we have been following Mary and the Holy Family through their amazing journey.  An emotional journey that started with an angel announcing her pregnancy, and moved on to the support she received from her aunt Elizabeth and from her fiancé Joseph.  We considered Mary’s bravery in accepting the challenge with all its risks, and the call to make a long journey right at the end of the pregnancy.

Now we arrive with Mary at Bethlehem.  Mary, we assume, is out of her depth.  Just when a young woman needs her own mother to support her through the birth of her first child, she finds herself several days’ journey from home with only faithful Joseph for company – but he’s presumably not been a parent before, either.  It’s a new experience, in a new town, with no facilities.  Scared or what?  What might be going through her mind, before the contractions start and they “call the midwife”?

Think back to that picture frame.  Let it represent Mary’s world view.  At this unprecedented moment, Mary needs to look outside the frame of her immediate challenges.  Of course as a good Jew she knows her Bible.  She can recite Psalm 139 – “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That applies to us all, the Jewish world view framed the idea that every child is unique and known to God.  But Mary knows more. She had the personal encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and the promise that Jesus would be called the Son of God.

It’s not only paintings that are put in frames.  Spectacles are, too. I got these new glasses recently.  When the optician invited me to choose a frame, I went for a bigger one than before.  When I’m cycling, head down, I need to be able to see through the lens like this, not over the top of the glasses where I lose focus.  But they are varifocals so I can read clearly as well. Close up and long distance, to see what’s under my nose and know where I’m going.

Prophecy is like that. Mary’s knowledge of Scripture also includes the Prophets.  The Jewish scriptures are full of Prophecies, and traditionally one Sunday in Advent is given over to thinking about them.  One way we can think about prophecy is that of seeing through a bigger frame – the prophet is given an understanding beyond what people can deduce from their own reasoning, science and history.  It might be like reading glasses –  a deeper understanding of what really lies behind human words and actions – or like distance vision –  a word of knowledge of the future.

Isaiah alone uttered many prophecies about someone called the Servant of God, and we have just heard part of one of them read this morning.   Put together with the words of Gabriel, Mary realises, sat in the stable in these days before the birth, that the baby in her womb is not only her first-born, but the first-born of God.

Elizabeth’s baby John was only 6 months old at this time, yet before his birth it was prophesised that he himself would be a prophet. At his circumcision, John’s father had also prophesied over him, that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Those words pointed not to John, but to Jesus.

Put together with the words of Isaiah, Mary realises again that her child will be not only the light of Israel, but the light of the World.  That’s a much bigger frame for her picture of the world!

Let’s leave Mary in the stable for a few minutes, and think ahead a bit.  Unlike us, Mary does not know at this point that the Magi are already on their way from the East, bringing symbols of kingship, priesthood and suffering.  They saw Jesus in a different frame altogether.  They under-stood that this baby was being revealed as the Son of God, but also saw that he would face dangers ahead.  Which brings us to the Gospel reading.

Jesus, as an adult, understood all too well what his identity meant.  He knew the intimacy of being God’s son, yet he also knew that in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, he was the Suffering Servant, destined to die. He knew also that his death and resurrection would bring about enormous upheaval.   So among all the good news of forgiveness and healing, Jesus also prophesied.  His prophecies warned of coming dangers, of the importance of looking far ahead.  He uses the simple example of leaves appearing on trees at the start of spring, a sign that summer is on its way, to remind people that God does give us signs of the times if we can only understand them.

“Be alert at all times”, he told his disciples. “That day” – the day when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled – “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”. This, and other prophecies in the Gospels, are often seen as having a double meaning: both the destruction of Jerusalem a generation later, and the second coming of Christ himself when we believe the world will be transformed in ways we cannot yet understand.  But they also had to be alert for what would happen in their own lifetimes.

For the moment, Christmas is upon us – not without warning, we knew it was coming, but so often we seem to have too little time to prepare.  The conventions of Christmas mean that our ‘frame’, or world view, can be restricted rather than expanded, and we find ourselves going along with the consumerism, family rituals and cultural expectations.    Jesus’ words about “Dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” are all too relevant, as what should be time to relax can easily end up being time to worry, and what should be time to appreciate God’s gifts can easily become a time of self-centredness.  “Being alert at all times” means being prepared for God, prepared for the unexpected.

We never know when crisis might hit us, even at Christmas.  As a boy, one festive season was ruined for me when my favourite pet cat was run over on Christmas Eve; twelve years later, my Grandma died, also on Christmas Eve.  And there are those who this year have much bigger worries than these: some will find themselves homeless, in debt or alone for the first time.  Many will remember the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004; this Christmas there has been another, in the same part of the world.  More locally, Boxing Day 2015 saw unprecedented floods in West Yorkshire.  In the light of those worries, those unexpected crises, those things that make us wonder how we can cope, what does Jesus’ call to “be alert at all times” actually mean?

Let’s remember Mary and Joseph again, sitting in the Bethlehem stable – no shepherds or kings yet, no baby, just the two of them and a few animals.  But actually it is an opportunity – assuming she didn’t go into labour the same day they arrived, they have a bit of time for reflection, to put their immediate worries into the expanded frame of thinking that the angels and prophecies have given them.  They are not alone, because God is with them – Immanu’el.  It’s not a disaster, because it’s all part of God’s plan.  There is the wider family to support them – we can be sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary’s own parents, would have been praying for them.

So can we, perhaps, find time this Christmas season to widen our frames, to see the whole picture?  If you have a week off work, or two weeks off school, take the time between now and the New Year to look at your life and think outside the frame.  Do you have only problems, or opportunities?  A short term crisis, or the chance to alter your long term plans?  Immediate decisions to make, or time to think over the options?  What support do you have in whatever is troubling you? Are there family members and friends who can help, self-help books, special interest groups or charities to turn to for advice; support in the local Church, Bible passages to encourage you, forms of prayer that you find helpful?  Which of God’s many promises can you rely on to carry you through?

Mary could cope because she could look outside the frame – she knew that Jesus was being born, not just for her but for the world.  Mary understood the prophesies, and was ready for Jesus.  Are you?

The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

28 March 2018.  Daniel chapter 13

This chapter is the story of “Susannah and the elders”. It is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features as a witness.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.  It does, however, make some very important points about natural justice and the legal system.

This story was written about 2200 years ago, about the Babylonian culture of about 2500 years ago.  Bearing in mind that there was neither written language nor (as far as we know) any official system of justice in what we now call England at that time, it is remarkable that Babylon was known for having a detailed legal system.  If verse 5 is historically accurate, two elders were appointed as judges each year.   That’s no bad thing – most societies regard respected older people as suitable to act in that capacity, and a decision by two people rather than one is generally safer.  But there are other good principles that should be observed, and which failed in Susannah’s case.

Firstly, to summarise the story: the two judges both become infatuated by this beautiful, young but married woman, and plot together to sleep with her when they find her alone (i.e. commit rape).   A trial is held at which they preside, and their evidence that she had been committing adultery with another man is held to be sufficient to condemn her to death.  Daniel then comes on the scene, not having been at the trial, but knowing by a message from God that she is innocent.  He is then invited to preside at a re-trial at which he finds the men’s evidence contradictory, and they are then condemned to death instead.

How many faults can we find?  Firstly, the two elders acted as both witnesses and judges.  That should never happen even in the most informal of disciplinary hearings!  Secondly, there was no evidence given as to who the mystery adulterer might be.  Thirdly, the elders gave their evidence together. When Daniel interviewed them he heard them separately and was able to expose their evidence as false, for one said they saw the adultery being committed under a mastic tree, and the other said under a holm-oak.  Witnesses should be interrogated separately for just that reason.  And finally, Susannah was not given the chance to put her defence, until Daniel’s re-trial.  We might think that was “the way things were” in a patriarchal society, but as Daniel points out, Jewish law did admit women as witnesses and provide for a defence to be made (verses 48-49).

To add to all that, although not a matter of breaking the civil law (then or now) the very lustful desire they had for her is condemned as sinful.  “They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to heaven” (v.9). It is neither surprising or sinful in itself for men of any age to find a young woman attractive, but any mature man, and certainly anyone following one of the major religions, should see there is a clear distinction between a passing look and lusting for someone so badly that he seriously contemplates raping her.

The story of Susannah, then, apart from the spiritual element of Daniel’s word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit, tells us more about principles of justice, law and what we would now call safeguarding, than about religion.  But then, religion is about real life.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

27 March 2018. Daniel chapters 9-12

Chapters 10 and 11 are titled “A time of wrath” and describe the vision Daniel is said to have had concerning a coming time of war and persecution.   Unlike some of the earlier visions there are no fantastic creatures here like the multi-horned beasts of chapters 7 and 8.  Instead we have all-too-human rulers, men of power and greed.  They are not named, though some of them are titled “King of the North” or “King of the South”.

The Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes identify many of these kings by name and dates of their reigns: the kings of the North are Alexander and his followers in Syria, and those of the South the Ptolemies of Egypt.  This does make historical sense of the story, which covers a period from 306 to 165BC, a period of 140 years or about five generations.  But given that the book was written in the 2nd century BC and Daniel was supposed to have prophesied in about the 6th century about events that took place in the 3rd, one does wonder how much was written with the knowledge of what had already happened, even if Daniel did have a prophecy that was passed own orally through this time.

The purpose of the revelation to Daniel, though, like the purpose of the revelation to St John in the first or early second century AD (i.e. the Apocalypse), was to encourage God’s people at a time of persecution by showing that there were powerful angels and archangels at work striving on behalf of goodness and justice, even when it seemed that evil had swept them away.

For the ordinary believer caught up in political and military upheaval it must often seem as if God has abandoned them to the forces of evil. But the presence of the Archangel Michael, whose name is translated as “Who is like GOD?” (10:13), serves to confirm that Daniel, and anyone else who continues faithful to God through times of trouble, has the power of God on their side.  Throughout the times of trouble there is the promise that there will be a restoration of justice and righteousness under a future saviour, and even resurrection of the dead (12:2). These are the promises that kept the Jewish people hopeful until the arrival of Jesus Christ, their true saviour.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 25 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

25 March. Daniel 3:24-90

For the rest of chapters 1-4 see my blog posts for 28 August and 29 August 2017.

These interpolations to the text of Daniel chapter 3 are titled “The song of Azariah” and “The song of the Three Young Men”.  They are put in the mouths of the Jews who, condemned for their refusal to worship the statue of gold set up by Nebuchadnezzar, were thrown into the furnace but protected from harm by an angel.  Whether this is a true miracle, or total fiction, or somewhere between, the value of these passages lies in the way that people in great danger turn to God, not in anger but in praise.  Azariah’s song acknowledges that God has rightly punished the Jewish people for turning away from him, and calls on him to have mercy on those who do still believe and trust in him.

The song of the Three Young Men (Azariah, Hananiah and Mishael, or to give them their Babylonian names Abednego, Shadrach and Meshach) is one of pure praise. It resembles the Psalms, in particular those with a congregational refrain (“Bless the Lord! Give glory and eternal praise to him!”).  Only at the end do the three men thank God for rescuing them from death, as if that is less important than praising him for his whole creation. This idea that God can and should be praised, even in the most testing of times, is another theme found throughout the Bible.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 24 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

24 March. Baruch chapters 4-6

Chapters 4 and 5 are a prophesy during the exile to Babylon, in which Jerusalem is personified as a woman who has been widowed and her children taken away; she is urged to be patient until they come back.  Although Baruch is associated with his contemporary Jeremiah, some of the words of chapter 5, with talk of levelled hills and filled valleys, are reminiscent of the earlier prophet Isaiah. This lesson, of being patient in times of trouble and trusting in God to restore better times at the right season, is one that recurs many times in Scripture, and especially in the Prophets.  God is never seen as condemning anyone to continual punishment in this life (though the fate of the unrepentant sinner after death is a different matter); turning to God in trust may not result in an instant improvement in our fortunes, but demands patience and hope for the future.

Chapter 6, by contrast, is a letter written earlier, before the exile, by the prophet Jeremiah. It warns in vivid terms of the dangers of idolatry, and especially mocks those who worship wooden idols.  However rich their gold leaf, silver ornaments and purple clothing, they have no power, no personality.  Jeremiah was obviously concerned that the God-worshipping people of Israel and Judah would be led astray by living in Babylonia where such idols were worshipped.

It is a strong person who, throughout their life, can resist the example and invitation of others to do what they know to be wrong.  Why is it wrong, though, rather than merely harmless? For if idols have no reality, what real harm can be said to be done by joining in worshipping them?  The point is that one cannot worship both the true God and idols – the heart can only point in one direction, ad it is important to get it right.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 23 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

23 March. Baruch chapters 1-3

These first chapters of the book are a combination of three Biblical genres – history, lament and wisdom.  The introduction sets it firmly in historical context – Baruch wrote it in exile in Babylonia as a text to be read first to those who were in exile with him, then to be sent back to Jerusalem to be read and acted on by those who remained.  It was sent along with money to pay for sacrifices and other expenses of the Temple.  Reading the other books of this period one can get the impression that no Jews remained alive in Judah, that the Temple was totally destroyed and worship ceased.  But from this book we get a different impression – a remnant remained in Jerusalem and was trying to keep the faith going there, just as the exiles were trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”.  By having them both read the same texts, Baruch was trying perhaps to foster a sense of unity between them.  Different places, different trying circumstances, but the same people of God.  As one verse of a well-known Christian hymn puts it,

Through many a day of darkness,
Through many a scene of strife,
The faithful few fought bravely,
To guard the nation’s life,
Their Gospel of redemption,
Sin pardoned, man restored,
Was all in this enfolded,
“One Church, one Faith, one Lord.” (Edward Plumptre, 1889)

The second element is lament – the people’s confession and contrition for their sins, acknowledging God’s right to punish them for turning away from him.  This sits very uneasily in today’s culture of rights, entitlements and personal freedom.  While nearly everybody (I hope) realises when they have physically or emotionally hurt someone else and will be willing to apologise for it, it is common for people to take the attitude “what I choose to do  is no-one else’s business, and if I offend them, that’s their problem”.  And if that is the attitude towards fellow humans, the idea of offending God, let alone the idea that God has the right to punish us, is even more alien to this post-modern world.

Sometimes it takes a real crisis – personal or corporate – to make people come to their senses and understand that right and wrong, sin and punishment, confession and forgiveness, operate not only between individuals but across communities and ultimately the whole world.    Perhaps the nearest a secular mindset comes to understanding this is with ecological damage and climate change, where we are gradually accepting that the pollution or waste I cause today will, indirectly but surely, have a negative impact on the lives of people I will never meet.  And the scale of confession and repentance (i.e. changing attitudes and actions) that is required is no less than that which faced the Jews in exile, or left behind in Jerusalem.

The good news is that lament is followed by praise to God for his wisdom (Chapter 3), by which we can do things right.    Only by doing things God’s way, and recognising our mutual dependence on each other, can we find the way of wisdom, the way of forgiveness, the way of sustainable living.

 

The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

21 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 44-49

I have grouped this long passage of six chapters together because they form a continuous narrative, recounting the heroes of Israel’s history.  In chapters 38-39 we read of the contrast between the majority of people who work hard but are quickly forgotten when they die, and the small number of those whose fame is remembered well after their time.  It is those few who are celebrated here. Starting with Enoch and Noah, legendary figures from prehistoric times, moving through the Patriarchs, Moses, the ties of the Judges, Kings, and Prophets, right through to Nehemiah who rebuilt the temple, this is over a thousand years of history summarised in a few pages.

Mostly these men (and yes, it is all men – even the Judges are described thus, though they included some women) are remembered for their virtue, wisdom, prophesy or strength.  But there are surprises.  David’s sins are referred to (but without detail). Solomon is praised for his wealth and for a time of peace, but then criticised for “abandoning his body to women” (47:19) and letting the nation be split in two by civil war.  King Rehoboam is given short shrift and branded “the stupidest member of the nation” and “brainless”. Jeroboam too, is blamed for his sins leading to the ultimate exile of the Jews from their homeland.  So why include them at all?

Such lists of illustrious names, of which there are many in the Bible, serve to remind the reader that God calls people to particular tasks in each generation.  The occasional reference to sins and weaknesses is a reminder that none of them was perfect.  The point is that God has an overall plan for the world, and many people have had to play their part to bring it to fruition.