When she turned 80 years old, the grandmother of my good friend, Gwenie, invited her ten grandkids to tell her in a note what they'd like to have from her house, when the time came for her things to be divided up. To a one these ten grandkids love Grandma Macy and would never, ever want her to think them greedy or demanding. And to a one, each and every one of them asked for that special hand tool she had in her kitchen for slicing potatoes into waffle fries. It was #1 on all ten lists!
Grandma Macy's feelings were just a little hurt that no one wanted anything more than a potato slicer. But that was twelve years ago and she's totally over it now. And she won't say who is getting the potato slicer. A potato slicer or a million dollars we can get our heads around, but an inheritance of words makes little sense to us. We'd say, “Well, that didn’t count!!”
Seems like Isaac ought just to take it back – have a do-over with Esau, once he'd realized he'd been tricked. But word was more than gold to them. Word spoke reality into being. Word and gesture were the very activity of creation – the blessing could no more be taken back than an arrow, shot, can be unshot.
It makes my stomach hurt to read how Rebekah and Jacob had this plan in place. How as soon as they heard Isaac say to Esau, "It's time," they were ready. I trash-talked husbands last week. But Rebekah – Rebekah is as bad as Abraham. She all but wishes one son dead – and treats her husband disgracefully.
And I know you’ve read your homework, so I know that you know that this jealousy and favoritism between the boys is old as they are. Jacob is mean. Esau strikes me as more trusting than bright. Jacob has schemed against Esau since birth. He's coveted the blessing since they were old enough to build a fire. The blessing is the Promise itself given to Abraham from God – the promise of descendants numerous as the stars, and land to belong to them.
The blessing – the promise – was everything. But what Rebekah and Jacob heard (I guess – I don’t really know what they thought the blessing consisted of. Maybe they wanted it mostly because they couldn’t have it – but I’m imagining they imagined it as wealth, control of so much wealth): The Promise was enormous – more than a person could fathom. And yet, it passed from one generation to another in such frail ways. Remember how Sarah and Abraham panicked and ended up with Ishmael too? In this case there are the words and touch of a bedridden, blind man who believes himself at death's door. He is not, in fact. He will live two or three more decades.
He calls his good-hearted, but not the-sharpest-tool-in-the-box, son to his side and says, "It’s time. Go kill and cook our last meal, so we can eat, and I can speak to you the blessing.” Meanwhile the other two spring into action. Jacob gets on his costume and practices his lines. Rebekah thaws the roast and bread she’s had ready for months. Isaac knows something isn't right, but either he doesn't have the strength to discern for sure or he doesn't have the heart to admit to himself what is happening – to admit to himself what his own wife and child are doing. He'll risk the blessing before he'll admit that.
It is sickening to listen to Jacob lie to his father. And worse to watch Esau weep. It’s called pathos – this aching, sickening sorrow between the father and the son. Without pathos we'd have a very skinny Bible – and hardly any literature at all. The parent failed to keep one brother from doing his best to kill the other, and the injured brother is devastated. The injury can't be undone or taken back. The daddy comforts the injured one as best he can, already planning how to protect the lying child from the weeping one, knowing that grief is going to turn to murderous rage really soon.
Jacob inherits everything and becomes a fugitive. Through him the promise will continue. Fleeing back to his mama's people, although he's never met them, where Esau hopefully cannot follow. Genesis 28:10-17 is the centerpiece text of the Jacob narrative, the stairway to heaven dream in which he receives the same promise his grandfather received – directly from God.
I love how Frederick Buechner wrote it in his Who's Who of Bible characters. The hardest part of the Jacob story is the same hardest part of the David story and the Peter story – and the Paul story: Jacob’s a jerk; he's a crook; he really is truly awful – and God is on his side. Jacob wishes his brother dead, he steals from his dying father, he hightails it out of town – and God blesses him double.
It makes me crazy. I want the Bible to make sense – not just any sense, but the sense I like, where the good things happen to good people who make good choices to be kind and generous to everyone all the time – people who, when they get bored or scared, don’t turn selfish and jealous and conniving and mean. But of course that can't be how things work, since that isn't how people are. What could God get done only using people who only ever make good choices? Practically nothing, I suspect.
Years ago a certain boy was really, really terrible to one of my girls. He was a year or two ahead of her in high school. I fantasized about running over him with my car. My daughter said, "Let it go, Mom. The universe will take care of him.” Here's the thing: when it's not my life and not my kid, especially when it's a story on a page, I can see that faith in God can only happen in the ordinary flow of ordinary human existence, in the course of how people truly live and behave – not how they ought to behave or should behave, but how we actually DO behave in the messiness of being alive and being related to other human beings.
It was God's idea to arrange us into families in the first place. When it works, it's awesome. But even when it works it’s not awesome every day – amen? Some days stink – amen? And for clarification: by family I’m talking about people who are blood kin to each other. I’m also talking about people who just sort of fall in together and end up calling each other family. I am also talking about church: folks with nothing in common but faith. It is all family.
But every single family that ever was or is or will be has one thing in common. For better or worse, we are what God has to work with. How families ought to act and should act may seem obvious. It just isn't very relevant when it comes to God’s will getting worked out in the world.
Jacob was a trickster and a crook. But he had nothing on his Uncle Laban. (You’ll read about him in this week’s homework.) Uncle Laban swindled Jacob out of 14 years of labor before Jacob knew what hit him. Jacob eventually caught on – and caught up in the swindling business. He swindled Laban right back and then had to run away again, this time with his four baby mamas: two wives, two concubines, as many as two dozen kids, servants, flocks and herds. It was a slow train.
And guess where they were headed? Back to Esau – about whom he had no idea: will he take us in or kill all of us on sight? He has nowhere else to go. Plus, the Promise sends him there. I like thinking God could be generous with young Jacob, because God knew what the universe had planned for him over the next thirty years. If God could move the promise from one generation to the next only when folks were acting right, it would have never gotten past Abraham and Sarah.
And I’m convinced it’s not by default either, as if God is settling with less than what God wishes for us. But rather, God knows it is very difficult to be a human being related to other human beings. Most of us are calculating and covetous on our best days. The only faith we have is the faith God gives us. And this is what God has to work with – by God's own design, mind you, but still, this is it.
It's true that Jacob got the blessing, but I'm not sure Esau didn't have the happier life. He certainly had less drama. Everything terrible Jacob did to his own daddy, was paid back to him tenfold by his own sons. They were horrible brothers. And also next to inherit the blessing, then lose it for the next 400 years, obliterated from their memories. The very ground you lie upon shall be yours and your descendants’, is what God said in Jacob's dream. Jacob could reach out his hand and touch it. And yet, it wasn’t to happen in his lifetime.
Turns out the fugitive isn't Jacob after all. The fugitive is the blessing itself – forever slipping between the petty coveting and the calculations of brothers, generations of brothers – and a sister here and there – who simply cannot trust the Father's love for them. A blessing the fulfillment of which is always moving further and further away in time and space than Jacob ever could have dreamed, the night he dreamed it on his stone pillow. This promise he covets and cannot take care of: 400 years it’s buried in Egypt, utterly forgotten by Jacob's great-grandchildren's children, until a baby in a basket comes floating down a river to be discovered by a princess who carries it home and says, "Can we keep him, Daddy?” Having no idea there was a fugitive promise in the basket too, that very, very naïve daddy – he told her yes.
Would you pray with me?
I cannot help but think that Abraham's heart was broken to have lived through such a day. Covered in ram's blood and speechless to explain his tears. Sarah, on the other hand – I bet she had plenty to say when they all got home. I can only read this story as a mama, not a preacher. Or, at least, everything my preacher mouth says is filtered through my mama heart and brain.
I'm here to tell ya, I wouldn't do it: sacrifice my child, take one step at the suggestion of sacrificing my own child to prove my devotion to God. I'd sooner cut my own throat. And Lord help him if my husband did what Abraham did and I found out about it. Even if he did bring the boy home, I'd never speak to him again. He'd be dead to me whether or not he breathed.
Sarah herself dies in the next chapter. Granted she was 127 years old, but still. After all the stuff Abraham pulled, like the time he passed her off as his sister – essentially gave her to a foreign king for a couple of nights to save his own skin! This stunt with Isaac, I believe, is what finally did her in.
I'm gonna go ahead and tell you the end of the sermon now, the only sense I can make of so obscene, so outrageous a story: we simply are not capable of the faith to which God calls us, this call to give up everything, to leave home and family as if they were nothing more to us than property, to trust God alone and altogether, no matter how terrible the circumstance. WE cannot do it. Such faith can only come FROM God.
The wood, the binding, and the willing son of Genesis 22 is the worst story imaginable – the stuff of nightmares. And yet, here it is in the Bible, front and center, just daring us to keep believing in the Creative God who brings life from death.
Why would such a God ask such a thing? The rabbis and scholars are rife with ideas. Many of them say it's a test of obedience, of ultimate faith in God. Taken at face value, the Old Testament would have us imagine Abraham never wavered. "Okay, God, no problem God.” He packed, he walked, he put the wood on his son's back and picked up the fire and the knife. He bound his son and raised the knife.
How old is this child, by the way? Little, like Aden and Reed? Almost grown like Andy? Full-grown like Rob? Abraham calls him a boy – which means nothing. Carl’s daddy called him “sweetheart” his whole life. We don't know. There's no suggestion the boy struggled. He appears to have been light enough for a 100-year-old man to subdue, so probably not a toddler. Or, more likely, he just trusted his daddy that much.
So Abraham raised his knife to the throat of his boy and the angel believed he would do it. The rabbis arguing the passage since then don't agree. Half of them are on the angels' side. Others believe Abraham knew all along God would not make him go through with it. Either way, it reads to me like a sadistic game God is playing with the life of a child. No theological point rises to such worth.
But here’s the thing: however outrageous the story, this is not an entirely abstract situation. Such predicaments happen all the time. At Riley Hospital this very minute there are parents in the crucible of horrible, impossible decisions about their kids' lives, who want to know WHY God has put them in this nightmare. In Yemen, South Sudan, Syria, people are watching their own children starve. Do they feed each of them a little so that they starve more slowly, or stop feeding one so the others might live and be well?
If the whole world is in God's hands, are those parents and kids in God's hands too? Is God accountable for their crisis? I do not know. The best I can unravel it is this – and believe you me, I know how far short of a satisfying answer this is:
ONE: God made humans for companionship and co-creation, to be God's friends and partners in caring for the rest of the world. But robots can't be friends, so we were made free; God made us free to choose friendship and partnership with God, or not. When and where we choose yes, creation thrives. When and where we don't, creation suffers – us included.
TWO: The name "Abraham” means "Father of Many,” which God gave Abram when God first made him this promise to be the Father of a nation, with progeny as numerous as the stars. This is in Genesis, chapter 12. "Father of Many” sounded kind of like a joke, since Abraham and his wife Sarah were older than old, and so far they had exactly zero children.
But Abraham and Sarah went along with it. They picked up and moved from where they were and traveled forever and had lots of adventures, but no babies. In chapter 17, God promises Abraham that he is going to have soooo many kids and grandkids, and they will all come through the son he's going to have by Sarah, who is approaching her 90th birthday pretty fast. Understandably she gets impatient, and in a moment of poor judgment she offered Abraham her maid Hagar for the night. Abraham resisted of course, knowing there was no way this could possibly end well – but he only argued for all of about ten seconds, and Hagar got pregnant.
By the time Hagar's baby was about to be born, Sarah realized the mess this was and made Abraham send her away, and Hagar ends ups stranded in the desert with a screaming newborn. So that’s when God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Well, I just think that is pretty crappy of God to act like Abraham doesn't have two boys. But that isn't the point at the moment – the point being, in chapter 21 the Bible says, finally God did for Sarah as God had promised. And she has this sweet, sweet boy, whom she names Laughter.
Here's why I call the story a sadistic game: it's bad enough one should threaten a child. But God???? And this child, the child so long promised? But again: ordained and orchestrated by God or not, the world operates just like this all the time, does it not? If you want to blame God, I think that's okay. I think God is big enough to handle it. And this: while Genesis 22 may be a central story in the text, it is not the first nor the last word regarding the heart and purposes of God.
AND THIS is #THREE: The wood, the binding and the willing son do not just appear here. The story of the text – of God in the lives of humanity, of our lives in Christ, our life together, and our life in this world – is the great arc of the story of God and God's people, played over and over in the scriptures, playing over and over in the church, playing over and over in my own walk with God. Just like with Abraham: God calls, God blesses, God tests, God provides. People are called and blessed and tested. Inevitably they fail. Inevitably they are loved and wanted and redeemed and made whole again.
Despite all our desires and best intentions, fear overwhelms us more often than faith. And what do we discover? We are not lost after all, but rather, God has come along to take us the rest of the way. God – who hoped we would trust him more than we did – is full of mercy when we just can't.
I would offer: these characters in Genesis 22 are like shadow puppets playing off the light of the gospel. Tell me where you can see it. Imagine that Jesus is imitated in multiple characters: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac – and even the ram:
➢ This long-promised, long-expected child;
➢ Abraham's (almost) unquestioning obedience;
➢ Isaac's passive acceptance of impending suffering;
➢ this line, "your son, your only son,” mindful of the baptism of Jesus;
➢ the servants (disciples) who cannot go all the way with him;
➢ the donkey (beast) bearing the burden of the sacrifice;
➢ Isaac carrying his own wood for sacrifice;
➢ the son asking his father if the sacrifice is necessary;
➢ the mother, not consulted or included, left to stand to the side in helpless agony – like Mary. But also like God, watching the beloved creation.
And there was the sacrifice – not the boy, but the ram. Abraham did not escape having to draw blood, to kill. Death is ugly business all around, but not negotiable. And then, there is discipleship. It's pretty easy, isn't it, to name off that handful of things which we would NEVER do, no matter what.
"I'll never sacrifice my child, Lord. You can forget that right now!”
"Okay – well – how about going across the street and talking to your neighbor then, Annette, how about that?”
"I'm serious, Lord, I will NOT sacri… – Wait, what? Lord, that guy is such a jerk. For real, he's awful. "
The obedience and the faith to which God has NOT called me, sadly, does not relieve me of the faith to which God has. This story is outrageous. I mostly hate it. But in the context of my life here and now, it can show me that whatever faith and courage any given moment calls for, God is with me, keeping God's promises, whether or not I can see it in real time. If all I can do is take the next step, the next step is the step of faith that I must take. That one step may be all the faith God gives me at a time.
But the scriptures and the witness of the church bear out the truth that, at the end of all things, God takes up the slack when and where we finally fail. And God brings life from death. Does that answer every problem in the story? Nope. You want to stay here until we get that all figured out? I didn't think so. The rabbis believed the biblical text is a reflection of God, a way of knowing the Divine. Because the Divine is infinite, they reasoned, the text has infinite meaning. The more you search for it, the more there will be to search.
I cannot help but think that Abraham's heart was broken to have lived through such a day. To come home, covered in ram's blood, weeping tears he could never explain to his child’s mama. The story of Chapter 23 is his quest to find the perfect place to bury her. The end of the sermon is this: We simply are not capable of the faith to which God calls us, this call to give up everything to follow Him, to leave home and family as if they were nothing more to us than property – to trust God alone and altogether, no matter how terrible the circumstance.
Thus, the wood, the binding and the willing son.
The Point of the Poem Is Praise
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them...
Hearing the words from the 8th Psalm, do any of us assume that the psalmist is actually trying to tell us, once and for all, that God has literal hands with ten actual fingers? Of course not; the psalmist is not speaking of divine anatomy but, rather, is singing a love song. The kind in which lovers say the silliest things, trying to tell the world why the One they love is so amazing.
Genesis chapter one should be as easy to preach as any love song ever written.
It is the overture to the story of God and Israel, the part before the first characters come on stage – when the story was still perfect, because it hadn't actually begun yet. Sort of like the baby nursery looks right before you bring home an actual baby. Sweet. Everything matches. There’s a theme. After which it is buried in laundry and smells like sour milk and poo.
But Genesis 1 isn't easy to preach. At least not for me, because a tiny wink of time ago, some preachers in the post-enlightenment West decided it wasn't a love song after all but, rather, a science book. And ever after, other preachers have been standing up here trying their best to sound like scientists, which some of them could pull off – like my philosophy professor in seminary, Dr. Glen Stassen. He held advanced degrees in chemistry along with theology and philosophy. The thing was, Dr. Stassen never treated Genesis like a science book. Always, rather, like poetry. Like the Psalms.
How does a person preach twenty-five years and still shy away from pages of scripture as beautiful as this? There's no good answer and one bad one: fear. Fear of nothing really – of simply not wanting to face a subject about which she doesn't feel competent.
So, study – and tell what truth you do know. It's not rocket science. Or evolutionary biology either, for that matter. Both are real. Neither is on this page of the Bible. On this page of the Bible is poetry, written by a people telling the story of their life together in God.
It's the prologue of a book that could have been titled The Rise & Fall of the People of Israel in Their Quest to Be the People of God at Which They Mostly Failed But There Were Some Really Amazing Moments; A Love Story. Over and over and over again in the telling of this long story, the storytellers run out of prose … and then they do what writers almost always do in those situations. They sing. They turn to poetry.
The prose, the narrative, takes up less than half the Old Testament. The rest is the law, the poetry, and the prophecy that came out of the story being told. Again – Genesis 1 being the overture. How many times, when you watched a movie the second time, did you see so many things that made sense once you knew the ending of the story? Little bits that you didn't catch the first time around. I love this in Lars & the Real Girl. The story takes a year to tell, and the weather matches the story being told. And I especially love it in The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. A beautiful movie, hard to watch but beautiful. Stripes are in nearly every shot of that movie – in bed linens, in the architecture. So subtle. So layered. So much texture.
In the Bible too. In Genesis too. We have to read it all to know that this first page didn’t get written in real time. It matters to know that it came together at the time when Israel thought she'd probably reached the end. When the Babylonians finally wiped out the rest of Judah near the end of the 6th century and the last of the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.
Others had escaped into Egypt years before. The land called Israel was occupied by Babylon and the ground was devastated. Most had started over as Babylonian citizens, were raising families and working there, with no plans to change. A few dreamed of returning to Israel, but that was a dim hope at best. Exile lasted over 70 years. 70 years! And returning meant starting over from literally nothing, in a land with no infrastructure, no government, no economy, nothing.
So some of the prophets in exile, rightly so, began to think maybe somebody ought to write their story down before everyone who could tell it was dead and gone. So whoever picked up that first sheet of lambskin upon which to write this story, dipped his quill and scratched out "in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” Because – honestly – how does one begin the story of one's life when one's life seems to be a total failure? That was Israel-in-Babylon's writing prompt.
Once upon a time… before there was time at all... there was only God… until the time God chose not to be all that was. And God began to shape out of all that God-ness… something smaller. Starting with wet that was sky… and wet that was earth…. Wet and sky and earth at the time being wordless things, of course, as no speakers had yet come forth to have need of words.
And so it went, the poem. The earth and sky. Light and dark. Plants and animals. Human beings. A Relationship full of love and grief – not that the two are different things. When the composers had their story in its final form, it was a long poem written by people who had started out believing they’d lost everything and ended up realizing they’d miscalculated. What seemed like everything … wasn't.
I keep thinking about people in shelters wondering what's left of their houses? Wondering if they are more sad at what they will lose or more glad at what they will keep. From this sunshiny Indiana moment, all I can do is wonder? I've lost nothing. Nor expect to. Which isn't to say I haven't. Or won't, eventually. We write from what we know, of course. Israel wrote from exile; but what if there had been no exile? Would they even have felt the need to write it? And if so, would page one have started, In the beginning God created Jerusalem ...?
But what's the use of dreaming dreams like, What if there had been no exile? What if this or that or the other thing had never happened? If we'd left earlier. Or later? If we hadn't gone at all? Tim Grimm has a lyric, "life can go from sweet to sad in one heartbeat." Then there are those losses and disasters with the long, slow wind-up. The ones we feel coming forever, but they are soft enough for long enough we can pretend we don't see and feel them coming. Or that what we see is probably something else. Or that there is still time to turn the ship... Until there isn't.
When all the losses were finally counted up, you know what those Israelites in Babylon discovered. The ones still interested in God’s part of it all. They discovered that all was NOT lost after all. They went back over and over the story and confessed that God had never promised life would always be easy. God never promised life wouldn't sometimes be scary and dangerous. God never promised not to take back stuff previously given – land, for instance. Or wealth or worldly influence. God doesn't promise to ignore human disobedience and rebellion, no matter how well-dressed, high-minded or spiritual the disobedience may be.
God promised to love and never leave. And it took Israel in exile more than fifty years to figure that out. Many more years, when you add the generations of disobedience that preceded exile in the first place. All that time and trauma and grief to discover that what God promised at the beginning – to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses – was a promise still kept to them in Babylon, when and where they thought all was lost. The same promise is still intact.
God was with them. God had always been with them. Before they were, God was. As refugees and immigrants, God still was. God wasn't going anywhere, since God always had been everywhere. God with us was the only promise God could make and keep, if God was going to make human beings free to obey or not. Human beings were made free to ruin positively everything else – and we have not disappointed, for the most part. We humans are on track to ruin creation itself.
For so long as life is good and kind to us, we have the luxury of believing ourselves to be the apple of God's eye, the center of the universe itself. But not until we lose everything we thought was evidence of our chosen-ness do we find ourselves corrected. Israel was corrected. But not in Jerusalem, try as God did through generations of prophets. Israel was corrected after the fact, in exile. Corrected in their understanding of chosenness. Chosenness was not a matter of geography and real estate, after all. THE PROMISE was a promise of presence. Not land, not wealth. Not power.
Presence. I am with you. A promise unbroken by 400 years in captivity, 40 years in the wilderness, 500 years on the land promised to them, and now in exile too. The promise holds as fast as ever. So that, in exile they found themselves with all that God had ever promised them in the first place – I AM with you – with no way to speak of it except poetry. Poetry – the language in which we tell our deepest truths, in words that make little sense at all when held in certain kinds of light.
Likewise with Genesis. The Creator God. Nesting, like expectant parents always do. Not with extra diapers and receiving blankets, but with light and dark and air and sea. With birds that fly and creatures that creep. And trees and flowers and every living thing to delight the eye and fill the belly and be our home.
"See how much God loved and wanted us!" Genesis 1 proclaims.
The point of the poetry is praise.
No infant ever came home from the hospital, looked around his nursery, and said, "I'll take it." Neither did humanity for the first few hundred years. Not until they thought they had lost it all. We thought we lost everything and discovered we only need one thing – God, the God who made us and keeps us even now.
Genesis 1 is the first page of the scriptures and the last – and every page in between on which somebody after God's own heart finds themselves in God's hands, having been there all along.