I want to begin this morning by making a confession; there are times when I get very annoyed at the institutional church.
Shocking, but true! I’m a priest, I work for the institutional church, but at times it irritates me intensely. I look at its structures, its more elaborate buildings, its traditions and procedures, and its tendency to get anal-retentive about things that don’t seem to appear on Jesus’ radar screen at all, and I ask myself, “How did we get from the Sermon on the Mount to here?” I suspect I’m not alone in asking that!
Actually, throughout Christian history people have often asked this question – in fact, it was the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, which is five hundred years old this year. Christians have often gotten discouraged about the state of the church. We’ve often looked back wistfully to a day when it was simpler, smaller, and less institutional. The Book of Acts has been very attractive to us: we notice that in Acts there seems to be very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, and yet the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work, the gospel spreads around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turn to Christ.
Of course, when we actually read the Book of Acts we find that all was not rosy in that particular garden either. Christian missionaries quarreled with each other and parted company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the uncomfortable fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!
That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important to us – it inspires us not to be satisfied with the status quo – but sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.
I want to suggest to you this morning that the Book of Genesis is to the Old Testament as the Book of Acts is to the New Testament. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats, and a huge expensive temple with priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, all of that is still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family – the family of Abraham – and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come – God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore – but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.
Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’. The people described in the Book of Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our modern Christian standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!
Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you by filling you in on the rest of the story.
Isaac’s mom and dad, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. Well, Sarah was, anyway; the Book of Genesis quietly admits later on that Abraham had concubines and had children by them, but none of them counted when it came to legal descendants. And this was a problem, because God’s founding promise to Abraham was that he would make of him a great nation, and ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.
But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had not been easy for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!
But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born, and it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy! Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!
And so we come to today’s story. Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq, and they came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.
It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:
“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).
And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac – marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. None of this nonsense about falling in love first, of course – in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned on!
If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother in law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau’s a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.
What’s this got to do with us today?
Well, let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. Those were the days when the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.
We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the people in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was a lot more fragile than that.
And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect. Just in the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth to those kids. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.
When he arrived in Haran Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.
And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. Only two or three generations ago, that would have been unthinkable; we were building solid buildings to last for a century or more. No one expected that within a few years, barely anyone would be attending them any more. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we look around on Sunday morning we oldsters seem to be rather better represented that you youngsters!
That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it and work to change it and make good and wise plans to address it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so that he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith – faith in the steadfast love of God!
And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not! The church is not made up of super-spiritual types – it never has been. Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid that the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her – and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph - with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.
These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. He has no choice; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families and single parent families, and single people, and gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and who don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.
Brendan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ – the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac, in all their flawed humanity, can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong – they made plenty of mistakes – but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.
Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because the God we need has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It was certainly not a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:
‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.