Readings; Psalm 84, Genesis :12:1-8, Matthew 15:32-39, Acts 3:19-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 7, 2016
It's the 20th Century - BC. A century of tremendous change. Alongside traditional practices of farming and agriculture, has come the founding of great cities. Nomadic tribal chieftains are no longer the ones with the power, but Kings and Pharaoh's, with unimaginable wealth.
Land ownership has led to the founding of nations. Technology is moving forward. Copper, iron, bronze and glass are new materials to work with. The first written languages are appearing. Arts and crafts are becoming increasingly intricate. The rich are getting very rich whilst whole people groups are being enslaved.
If I was going to build a nation then I'd want to enlist the help of some 20th century BC movers and shakers. Instead, when God builds a nation, the Bible gives us the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. None of them seem like nation builders.
Abraham is an old guy living in a tent with an elderly wife who is unable to bear children. The only thing he has going for him is a faith in the one true God. We don't know how that faith developed. All we know is that it is more than words and guides everything he does.
God tells Abram 'Go from your country, your people and your father's household... I will make you into a great nation... all the people on earth will be blessed through you.' God tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the skies.
In the 20th century BC you could understand about nation building because it was a happening. You could understand how, if you were favorably placed... which of course Abraham wasn't... you could exert influence over countless numbers of the earths inhabitants.
That is not the burning issue for Abraham. It is the fact that he didn't have, nor looked like he was about to have, any children. When his wife Sarah learns about this great plan of God she laughs out loud and comes up with the idea of having a surrogate child through their slave girl, Hagar. This happens. But it is not God's plan.
We have been talking about an Upper story and a Lower story running through the books of the Bible. Abraham and Sarah are a wonderful example. God tells them the plan. The Upper Story plan. Lower story? They take things into their hands and it doesn't work out so well. God redeems the situation and resumes with the upper plan.
In her old age Sarah bears a child. They call him, Isaac, a name meaning laughter.
But it's no laughing matter when Abraham believes that God is calling him to make a sacrificial offering of his son on a mountaintop called Moriah. It seems incredulous to us that Abraham even considers going through with such an action.
With the benefit of hindsight we see how this act prefigures one of the most famous and powerful bible verses in the whole of Scripture. John 3:16. 'For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.' Some scholars believe that the hill of Moriah is the same hill where around 2080 years later God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, would be offered up as a sacrifice on a cross.
Abraham and Sarah live on to a grand old age. But what of Isaac?
Isaac turns out to be no better placed than Abraham to father a great nation. He marries a girl called Rebekah, but after 20 years of married life, they have no children. Now what? They pray. They wait. They pray some more and it turns out they don't have a child, they have two... twin boys... who even in the womb begin fighting with each other.
What we know about Isaac is that he favored one of the twins, a boy called Esau, who not only is born first but is a guys kind of guy, a shock of red hair and maybe a ZZ-Top beard, a hunter, a meat catcher and consumer. Isaac obviously sees the potential in Easu to be a nation founder.
Rebekah's affections lie with mummy's boy Jacob. It comes to the time in life when the decision is to be made as to who will lead the way in building the nation of God. A cunning plan emerges. Rebekah dresses Jacob up in a hairy Easu-like fashion, sends him into Isaac, who is now blind and doing everything by touch and smell, and tells Jacob to lie about his identity and claim to be Esau.
Isaac is duped. The blessing, and the huge inheritance, go to Jacob. Esau, returns home and is so furious he desires to kill Jacob, causing Rebekah to send Jacob to live with the relatives. Not exactly a nation building strategy, but as we've seen, there is an upper story and a lower story.
The Upper story appears to be that God is determined to demonstrate that God's nation... God's kingdom... is built through the compromised and often unreliable lives of flesh and blood people. People who struggle to trust God, who often think their plans are better than God's, yet grace takes that weakness and makes something out of it.
Which brings us to Jacob. At first Jacob doesn't appear to be the most likable of characters. What goes around, comes around. Jacob certainly has his struggles. He falls in love with a girl, works like a crazy man to earn her hand in marriage, but then is tricked into marrying her sister and has to do it all over again.
He learns a lesson about forgiveness from brother Esau, whom he keeps sending gifts to in an attempt to dissuade him from murdering him. When they meet, Esau is like, 'Forgeddaboutit... what's done is done, the past is the past, time to move on, bro'
Jacob has a close encounter of the violent kind with an angel who appears to be training for the world wide wrestling federation. In a match that lasts throughout the night, Jacob wrestles with God before limping away with a blessing. The angel tells him, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob'. At that point God doesn't tell him what it will be.
That happens when arrives at a place called 'Paddan Aram' (which can be translated as 'the place of an amazing rescue') God blesses him and says, 'You will no longer be called Jacob, your name will be Israel... I am God almighty; be fruitful... a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants'.
This is the 20th century BC, a time of great change and nation building. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still looking for a homeland. God's Upper story plan is taking a while. But events are about to place a young son of Jacob called Joseph at the center of one of the most powerful, inventive, luxurious cities in the world. The powerhouse of Egypt becomes the next focus for God's nation building plans.
The powerful lesson from these events is that God chooses the most unlikely people to build God's kingdom. God does so in such a way that the only explanation for the events that take place, is that God is behind them, working out an ' Upper Story' plan that can be hard to discern from a 'Lower Story' perspective.
God’s strategy of picking the least likely candidates to succeed should give us hope. God chooses people like us, beautiful, broken people, to fulfill God-sized projects. When amazing things happen through the lives of ordinary people, glory goes where it should, to God.
There are so many lessons we can learn from Abraham. In the midst of a culture where religious options were many, and a time in history where humanities achievements were escalating, he manages to tune his life to the direction of the one true God. We also live in an age of tremendous change. Yet the option is open to us all to faithfully seek the ancients paths and the wisdom of ages.
Through the strange events that take place on Mount Moriah we are given a glimpse into the mission of Jesus Christ, who would offer His life as a sacrifice on our behalf that we may discover a way of living free and forgiven and graced by God's Holy Spirit.
From Isaac we learn that the story, certainly the 'Upper Story' of God's grace, never begins or ends with us. Though we make mistakes, mistakes are forgivable and God can actually use them in unimaginable ways to build the kingdom. We are born into a heritage and have the responsibility and privilege of passing that heritage onto those who will come after us.
From Jacob we learn that, from a lower story perspective, sometimes we truly have to wrestle with the will of God for our lives, and when we do, we never walk the same again. Our priorities will change. Our hope will increase. We will wake up to the fact that there is something big... something Kingdom sized that God is seeking to do through our everyday, ordinary lives.
Next time.. we'll see how that worked out in the life of one of Jacob's sons.