family

going home

“You can’t go home again.”  We’ve all heard that one.  You can’t go home again.  Why not?  I go home on a regular basis.  (By regular, I mean at least once per year.)  Home for me is Tennessee.  (That is, it’s my second home.  My first home is wherever Banu is!)  Tennessee is where my mom and sister live.  Home includes both space and time.  Every time I return, things have changed.  There are new stores and restaurants.  Some stores and restaurants Banu and I liked have disappeared.  (A couple of examples include the breakfast place, “The Egg and I,” and a lovely gyro place owned by an Egyptian family.  We do miss that place—and them.)

Of course, who knows how long it will be before we can enjoy sitting in a restaurant?

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More fundamentally, “you can’t go home again,” refers to memories: of people, of events, of good times and bad times.  For some people, home never really felt like home.

Regarding not being able to go home again, think of Jesus in Matthew 13.  He goes back to Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue.  There’s no problem with that, right?  Wrong.  The people look at each other; they look at him.  Where is he getting all this stuff?  Son, we know your family.  You weren’t raised to be some kind of philosopher.  The scripture says, “And they took offense at him” (v. 57).

Jesus couldn’t go home again.

In Genesis 32, we see another fellow trying to make his way home: Jacob.  He has left his Uncle Laban, and not on the best of terms.  Let’s go back many years, and briefly sum up.  Jacob leaves home in a hurry because his brother Esau sees red and wants him dead.  Jacob has been up to his trickery.

(And if you recall, along the way he has his vision of a stairway to heaven!)

As he approaches Laban’s place, he sees Rachel, who we’re told is really good-looking.  There’s also her older sister, Leah, who apparently is not quite as good-looking.  Laban says, “Work for me for seven years, and you can marry Rachel.”  Seven years go by and Laban says, “Oh, I just remembered.  The older sister has to get married first.”  Seven more years go by.  (I wonder how Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has fared!)

In time, Jacob figures out how to arrange for his goats to breed and become stronger, while Laban’s goats are the weaker ones.  He’s back to his shenanigans; maybe he feels justified this time.  Anyway, Jacob is found out, so he takes his family and possessions and hits the road.

There’s one little obstacle between Jacob and his destination—Esau, his aggrieved brother.

My obstacles in going home have been along the lines of road construction, a traffic accident, or bad weather.  I can’t claim to have ever had a family member blocking the path.  (That’s a claim I wouldn’t want to make!)  And I must confess, as I’ve gotten a bit older, stops at rest areas have become more frequent, as Banu will testify.

2 gnAs I said, it’s been many years since he last laid eyes on his brother.  Jacob wonders, “What will he do when he sees me?  How will he feel?”  Jacob decides to err on the side of “furious.”  He sends some of his guys ahead to take Esau’s temperature, so to speak.  When they return, they tell Jacob that Esau is on his way—and incidentally, he has 400 men with him.

We’re told that Jacob “took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had” (vv. 22-23).  He has everyone go first, including his beloved Rachel.  I wonder how she felt being used as a human shield.

{"Rachel: Noir Bible" by James C. Lewis}

Jacob has sent everything and everyone away.  He is all alone.  He is all alone in the darkness of night.  I imagine we can relate to that.  I’m sure there have been nights in which it seemed like dawn would never arrive.  We’re left with our thoughts, our fears, our hopes.  And we are struggling.

For Jacob, that struggling is quite literally true.  He is wrestling with a mysterious man all night long.  Who is this man?

Nancy deClaissé-Walford, who teaches at Mercer University, has some suggestions.  “Theories abound concerning the identity of ‘the man’ with whom Jacob wrestled.  Was the man God? Was it Esau?  Or was it Jacob’s own inner being wrestling with itself?”[1]  She favors that last one.  Maybe there are hints of all three.  Maybe it was his fear of Esau—I don’t believe it was the man himself.  There was certainly that inner struggle, that inner conflict.

It was all wrapped up in Jacob’s wrestling match with God at the Jabbok stream.  It might be helpful to know that the Hebrew words for “Jabbok” (יַבֺּק, Yabboq) and “wrestle” (אׇבַק, ’abaq) sound very much alike.  We have a showdown at Wrestle River.

So what happens when dawn finally comes?  Jacob’s combatant hasn’t been able to pin him.  But before the match can end with the ringing of the bell, he gets one more whack at Jacob.  He sucker punches him in the hip socket, and it’s put out of joint.  Consequently, Jacob walks with a limp.  It sounds like Jacob needs hip replacement surgery!  Still, he is hanging on to his opponent, and he’s demanding a blessing.

After that long night of struggle, that long night of inner struggle, Jacob is still hanging on.  We’re told, “Jacob wrestled and received a new blessing (not one obtained by trickery, but this time by honest struggle).”[2]  Jacob is given a new name.  Says the man, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28).

Jacob has held on.  He hasn’t let go until he receives his blessing.  That takes stamina.  That takes determination.  That takes a stubborn resolve.

Terence Fretheim has an interesting take.  “God may encounter people in conflictual times by taking the very form of the anticipated difficulty.”  I find this interesting.  [quoting Walter Brueggemann[3]]  “‘In the night, the divine antagonist tends to take on the features of others with whom we struggle in the day.’”[4]

I’ve heard it said that dreams prepare us for similar events in the waking hours.  They prepare us for life.  (I’m not sure how I feel about that.  I imagine I’m not alone in wanting to avoid a lot of the stuff that happens in dreams.)

Of course, this is about more than dreams.  He continues, “Having been through such a time with God provides a gracious rehearsal for the actual life circumstance.  To refuse to engage with God in that struggling moment denies oneself a God-given resource.”

It’s said, “The only way out is through.”  Encounters with God, and by virtue of the Holy Spirit within, encounters with oneself, can be annoying, fearful, painful—and yet, not without a certain joy and revelation of love and grace.

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Jacob has traveled that path and made the awesome discovery: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (v. 30).

Still, there is that limp!  He has been injured, and he will carry that injury, that scar.  Nevertheless, that dislocated hip is a sign of grace.  It is when we are weak that we are strong.  That area of vulnerability, whatever it is, is where God can especially work in our lives.

Last spring, I spoke of my surgery to remove a brain tumor, and I spoke of the scar left behind.  What I didn’t mention were the changes that experience made.  I came to new insights and understandings of people who suffer mental problems.  (Actually, for me, that wasn’t too much of a stretch!)

The steroids I was taking gave me a glimpse of those with wild mood swings.  (I’ve never been accused of that.)  Here’s one quick example.  One year when we lived at the seminary, people were decorating for Christmas.  I was upstairs in our apartment, watching Star Trek.  Banu, who was with two of our female friends, called and asked me to come down and help them hang a decoration.  As I descended the stairs, I became angrier and angrier.  How dare they take me away from Star Trek?

I noticed they had a ladder poised at the spot.  Any of them could have easily climbed up and attached the decoration.  They didn’t need me to do it.  I gave them the silent treatment.  It was clear how incensed I was.  Later on, I apologized for my unwarranted behavior, explaining about the steroids.  One of them replied, “Now you know how PMS feels.”

Understand, I’m not saying God gave me the brain tumor, but it could be seen as my own wrestling match.  I still carry that limp.  It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would learn anything.

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One way in which we all are going home is the return to our church sanctuary.  There are precautions to take, based on New York state guidelines, the CDC, and no doubt most of all, our calling to love one another—to love our neighbor.

As we go home, how have we been struck on the hip socket?  How are we limping?

We are limping, but as I said a moment ago, it is a gift of grace, as strange as that might sound.  In this time of pandemic, we hold on for the blessing.  We hold on for the blessing of the earth, for the blessing of the suffering, for the blessing that rights the wrongs.  If there were anyone who understood holding on for the blessing, while bearing scars, it was Jesus.  Even now, Jesus as the risen and ascended Christ, holds onto us.  He travels with us as we go home.

 

[1] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, “Genesis 32:22-32: A Lonely Struggle and an Undeserved Blessing,” Review and Expositor 111:1 (2014), 75.

[2] deClaissé-Walford, 75.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 267.

[4] Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 569.


who do you think you are?

I want to begin with a question.  How many of you can think of someone from your past, maybe even early childhood, who for you is summed up by a certain image or incident?

1 mk{Is this fellow summed up by a single image?}

Let me give an example.  When I was in second grade, there was a kid in my class named Jon.  For some strange reason, he would turn his eyelids inside out.  The first time he did it, it scared me, and I started crying.  That was a mistake!  Once he saw that, he made a point of turning his eyelids inside out and then trying to get my attention.  I don’t recall crying anymore, but it still freaked me out.

And to this day, that’s the image I have of Jon.  He was the creepy kid who would turn his eyelids inside out.  Forever and ever, that is who he is!

It’s a common thing, really, to go from our memory and decide that we have them figured out.

In the gospel reading from Mark 6, Jesus goes back to his hometown and encounters something like this.  We’re told, “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him” (vv. 2-3).

Brian Stoffregen has said, “It is essentially their knowledge of Jesus that keeps them from really knowing and benefiting from [him].  Could this be a warning to all people who think that they know Jesus, but, in fact, may misunderstand and reject the real Jesus?”[1]

I think there’s more truth in this than we would like to admit.  We can possess plenty of Jesus “trinkets.”  We can be acquainted with Jesus.  In fact, we can know quite a bit about Jesus…without knowing Jesus.

2 mkThe people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him.  They remember when he was “knee high to a grasshopper”!  And this recent behavior has them confused.  Isn’t he the carpenter?  What’s he doing acting like a rabbi?  Who does he think he is?

The Greek word translated as “carpenter” is τεκτων (tektōn), but it has more than one meaning.  It can refer to any “artisan” or “craftsman.”  It can even mean “artist,” like a sculptor.  So we’re not entirely sure that Jesus was a carpenter, but it’s a pretty safe bet.

The point is, in the eyes of the local folks, he wasn’t staying in his place.  Jesus wasn’t sticking to what they always thought he would—or should—be!  “And they took offense at him.”  The word is σκανδαλιζω (skandalizō), which means they were scandalized by him.  But that’s putting it mildly.

In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke does better than Mark in capturing anger at Jesus: “When they heard [him], all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (v. 28).  They go ballistic.  They’re so mad that they want to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he slips away before they can execute their plan (and him)!

Something else to notice is that Jesus is called “the son of Mary.”  In their culture, men carry the names of their fathers, such as “James son of Zebedee.”  Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a not-so-veiled way of saying that he is illegitimate.  We see a suggestion of it again in John 8:41.

It’s been noted that “the refusal—or inability—of Jesus’ neighbors to accept his status confirms what [we’ve seen so] far: the world’s standards of judgment appear to run headlong into God’s ways.  Jesus does not measure up.”[2]

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It’s not like Jesus is deliberately being stubborn.  He’s not doing things simply for shock value.  But he recognizes the unjust nature of so many of his culture’s traditions.  And that often includes the role of the family.  Jesus sees that “there is a higher priority than family power and obligation.”  William Loader has suggested, “Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression.”[3]

This surely is no surprise to any of you.  We all know people, and families, who have squashed the dreams and gifts of one of their own.  This can be done actively:  through ridicule or even abuse.  Or it can be done passively: through neglect or lack of encouragement.  Some of you might have firsthand experience with this.

Jesus has a very different take on family values.  In Mark 3, he asks, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 33-35).

Our Lord models for us a new way of being a family.  (And I would say, a better way of being a family.)  It’s been said, “That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought—and a healthy one.”[4]  That’s what the church should be: a family at a deeper and more profound level than those tied to us by blood.  (But then, perhaps it’s the blood of Christ which ties us together!)

Verses 4 to 6 tell us that “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  He was amazed, astonished, dumbfounded.

Their minds are already made up about him.  They prefer the picture they have in their heads, as opposed to the living Jesus.  That’s what they’re comfortable with.  They think they have him all figured out.  One of my favorite bands, King’s X, sang, “There is no room inside a box!”  That’s no place for Jesus—or for those who, in second grade, turned their eyelids inside out!

The late Bruce Prewer commented, “The low expectations from within one’s locality, not only underrate the gifts and possibilities of a ‘local,’ but can also actively inhibit the development of such gifts. Numerous people have been grossly restricted by the low expectations of those around them. Many have to go elsewhere to be truly be themselves.

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“As I see it, fostering low expectations is one of the devil’s most canny stratagems.”  Who do you think you are?

People with “low expectations can inhibit or constrict your enlarging identity in Christ.  They rarely notice your developing gifts, or give you gracious affirmation in your accomplishments.”[5]  They’re the ones who are sure to pour cold water on the things that make for life—the things that foster joy and hope.  Although, I suppose we all do that, at least on occasion.  But there are people who seem to be expert at it.

Sometimes, low expectations appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come to us cloaked as otherwise good and even noble considerations.  How many genuine promptings from God (not personal agendas) get buried amid concerns that we’ve never done it that way before…or we can’t afford it…or we should assign that to a committee and let them study it for the next few months?

“Be lofty in your expectations for yourselves and for other Christians, and be generous with yourself and with them when you stumble.  A stumble does not characterize your true future, but Jesus Christ does.”[6]

If it feels like I’m saying, “do more,” that’s not it.  It’s not enough to simply be busy.  Instead, what does God ask?  Mark tells us about the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples.  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 12: “They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different.”  That’s his take on the message of repentance.

As I move towards my conclusion, I want to share with you something attributed to Nelson Mandela.  It actually appears in a work by Marianne Williamson.  Still, it sounds like something Mandela would have quoted!

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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she writes.  “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[7]

So… who are you to tell someone that Jesus loves them?  Who are you to feed the hungry?  Who are you to speak against torture?  Who are you to visit the sick and those in jail?  Who are you to bring hope to the hopeless?  Who are you to tell people that their sin has been forgiven?  Who do you think you are?

You are a child of God, and so am I.

 

[1] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[5] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[6] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[7] marianne.com/a-return-to-love


royal revelation

What do you think of when hear “Revelation”?  And yes, it’s “Revelation,” not “Revelations.”  It’s very easy to know the difference.  Just look at the name in the Bible!

1 rv

As might be expected, many people’s reflections deal with confusion, crazy creatures, future disasters, scenarios of the rapture—a theology, by the way, which is built on a single verse (though not in Revelation) and given an extremely questionable interpretation.  But I say, “as might be expected,” because much of the teaching on the book of Revelation presents horror-movie-like themes, including 666, the number of the beast.  Folks have all kinds of fun with that one!

And then, there are the timelines of the future.  People have taken plenty of tidbits from the book and devised their own interpretation of “what soon must take place,” as it says in verse 1.  I have heard many sermons in which sober reflection has been tossed to the wind.

So having said all that, we need an approach with humility.  “If you’re unwilling to live with any uncertainty, you’re more likely to read into Revelation things that are not there.  Beware of interpreters who appear to have all the answers to even the small questions.  ‘Experts’ who claim absolute knowledge about every detail of Revelation should immediately raise suspicion.”[1]

“Revelation” means “apocalypse.”  And apocalypse: oh, that’s another fun word!  What does our popular culture make of “apocalypse”?  What do we see in movies and on television?  The aftermath of nuclear war?  A global pandemic?  Zombies walking the earth?

2 rvApocalypse refers to a revealing, an uncovering, a showing of what was hidden: indeed, a revelation.  Pablo Richard adds that apocalypse “is not neutral: what the wicked and the oppressors cannot understand is revealed to the upright, to the childlike, to the oppressed.”[2]  It’s a gift to those who love God.

As the book begins in verse 1: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  The revelation, the message, is intended for the servants of the Lord.  It is sent, via angel, to God’s servant, John.

In fact, in Matthew 11 for example, Jesus uses the word “apocalypse.”  “Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants’” (v. 25).  The word has been “revealed” (απεκαλυψας, apekalupsas) not to those who think they know, but to the humble—to those who are as humble as infants.

And these humble ones are blessed.  There are seven beatitudes (“blessed”) in Revelation.  (In the book of Revelation, seven is a number that appears over and over and over.)  Verse 3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.”

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud.”  This was read to the community as part of worship.  That underlines something about the entire book.  Revelation, as much as anything else, is a book of worship.  Add to that, “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it.”  Blessed are those who hear.  Blessed are those who, in church, stay awake and set their cell phones on vibrate—or turn them off altogether!

If it wasn’t clear already, “We were not the intended audience of Revelation,” as Eric Barreto says.[3]  It wouldn’t make sense to have a book directed to people in the distant future.  Verse 4 says John sent his message “to the seven churches that are in Asia.”

I think most of us understand that the scriptures were written for the people alive at the time.  Still, they have enduring meaning as the inspired word of God passing down through the ages.  Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying.

The problem with Revelation is the symbolism which would have been familiar to most of John’s audience, now speaks a language we struggle to understand.

Perhaps we weren’t the intended audience of Revelation.  Nonetheless, “This is the word of God for us today.  They are words for us, however, by the means of some of the earliest believers in Christ Jesus…  Thus, these opening verses invite us to read the rest of this text in light of the everyday experiences, struggles, and successes that marked these early Christian communities.”[4]

There’s a whole lot more in this introduction to the book, but I don’t want to spend too much time on it.  I want to consider what today is: Christ the King Sunday (also called the Reign of Christ.)  What is this day all about?  What does it mean to say Christ is king?

The book of Revelation is addressed to Christians near the end of the first century.  Two or three decades before them, the emperor was Nero, a man who insanely persecuted the church, as well as a bunch of other people.  Now, Emperor Domitian picks up where Nero left off.  He takes things even further in how he wants to be addressed.  He demands to be called “our lord and god.”  (Here’s a guy with a real messiah complex!)

3 rv

As you can imagine, Christians are put into an extremely awkward, even deadly, position.  Do you simply go along, do the expected duty of a patriotic citizen, even if your heart isn’t in it?  You could avoid the unwelcome attention of the state.  Of course, there is that little problem of allegiance to Jesus Christ.  How do you reconcile those competing loyalties?

John’s words are meant as both encouragement and expectation.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (v. 4).  Okay, maybe there’s no problem there—not exactly, anyway.

Then we have this: “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5).  There’s plenty of stuff there to give someone pause.

How much of this is set in stone, so to speak?  Isn’t there a little wiggle room?  Jesus is called “the faithful witness,” so this really is a message from God.  He’s also called “the firstborn of the dead.”  No one, not even Domitian himself, can legitimately claim to have been resurrected.  Here’s the kicker: “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

It’s a common thing to hear it said, “Our church doesn’t get involved in politics.  We avoid political issues.”  I can go along that, if what we’re talking about is promoting one candidate over another.  But for the Christians in John’s time, “lord” and “god” and “savior” are not only spiritual terms, they’re also political terms.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is inherently political.  The good news of salvation is intrinsically political.

That’s not a bad thing.  “Politics” is a neutral term.  In fact, it used to be taught in every school!  What is “politics”?  What is “political”?  The way we structure our society—the way we shape our values in our social contract—that is political.  “Politics” becomes a dirty word when we act in bad faith, when we employ manipulation and deception in furthering our own narrow ends.

4 rvMany applaud the idea of a “private faith.”  But don’t you dare live that out in the world!

The choice between Christ and Caesar obviously didn’t begin with the church in the time of Domitian.  In John 18, there is Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus.  There’s a debate over whether or not Jesus is a king.  He says, “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (v. 36).

Pilate realizes Jesus isn’t scheming to have him overthrown.  Jesus continues, “I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate replies, “What is truth?” and then he walks out the door (vv. 37-38).  He’s really not interested in getting involved in this religious squabbling among the Jews.

Keep your faith to yourself; don’t bother me with it.

Of course, there is a problem with that if we follow the example of John the Revelator, who was exiled to “the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (v. 9).  He hasn’t kept his faith to himself.  The powers-that-be wanted him to go away.  He made his choice between Christ and Caesar.  For those who confuse the two, consider yourself as having received fair warning!

Bruce Metzger, in his book Breaking the Code, has his own cautionary note.  “Revelation…has a warning for believers down through the years.”  It speaks “of the idolatry that any nation commits when it elevates material abundance, military prowess, technological sophistication, imperial grandeur, racial pride, and any other glorification of the creature over the Creator.”[5]

So again, what does it mean to say and to claim Christ as King?

Do we affirm the inherently political nature of the gospel, the good news, in a way that is holy and ennobling?  Do we take a cynical, unholy approach in a way in which we worship our own tribe?  Of course we will have disagreements, but are we mindful of the one we would serve as King?  Do we celebrate the peace of Christ, or do we celebrate the peace of empire—be it Roman or as empire exists today?  (A lot of questions, to be sure!)

Claiming Christ as King means loyalty to one who redefines the meaning of family: “pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt 12:49-50).

5 rv

When we are welcomed into the family of God—the one who is the Alpha and Omega—we receive a royal revelation that we belong to Christ the King.  That is an apocalypse to be celebrated.

 

[1] zondervanacademic.com/blog/how-read-revelation

[2] Pablo Richard, Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation, English tr. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 37.

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[4] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1623

[5] Bruce Metzger, Breaking the Code (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 88.


what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the phrase “family values.”  Many of the people who have been the strongest advocates of “family values” have held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

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“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.”  The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest.  Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction.  In that sense, they tend to look like American families!

A good case in point is the family in our Old Testament reading.  We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal.  I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess, a mess of which he appears unwilling or unable to seriously address.

To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery!  Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible.  Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!

And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood’s novel from 1985.  (I admit, I haven’t read the book.)  The show illustrates with brutal honesty, what’s behind our story and a multitude of others like it.

2 fatherToday’s account really starts in chapter 16.  God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened.  (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale.  Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)  Still, the fact that by this time Sarah is past menopause, which would be a legitimate reason, presents a problem.

Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  Knowing she’s no longer able to give birth, Sarah comes up with an idea.  She has a servant, a young Egyptian woman named Hagar, who is certainly able to produce a son.  So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby.  The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response.  He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!

The son who’s the result of this union, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir.  And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child.  That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.[1]

But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun.  In a society in which women are valued primarily for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

All three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate and probably at her husband.  Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah.  And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the very real bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah presents her complaint, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6).  In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; do whatever you want.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar is expelled into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God and receives the promise that she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is very important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).

Let’s jump ahead about fourteen years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21.  The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir.  Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.

Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac was weaned, which can happen when the child is three years old or more.[2]  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it in verse 9, Ishmael “playing.”

What we have in verse 9 is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is also the source of Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq).  The similarity in the words for “playing,” “laughing,” and “Isaac,” probably points to Sarah’s alarm at how similar Ishmael is to Isaac.  She knows he’s a threat to Isaac as the heir.  As a result, she takes decisive action.  She demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

I’ve taken some time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family.  It also helps us understand Abraham.  As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.

My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?”  If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.”  What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness?  What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?

Still, Abraham is chosen by God to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass.  Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads.  And despite himself, he succeeds.  And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.  Leaving his homeland wasn’t at the top of his “to do” list.

Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience.  It’s led me to think of my own father.  And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a half-brother with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I don’t think he would have gone along with that idea anyway!

3 fatherOn Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, and that is fitting.  But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived.  Thankfully, I’m not in that category!

What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me.  Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me.  I know I was truly wanted.

When I was young, we did all the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teenager who’s ever felt that way!)  For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering what it would be like to think with her brain.

Something happened in 1985.  Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ.  Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much.  We didn’t have many deep conversations.  But Jesus Christ changed that.  We felt free to open up to each other.  (At least, that’s how I perceived it.)  And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!

Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham.  He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy.  In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other.  I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.”  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing!  But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.

“What kind of father is that?”  All of us can ask that question of our own fathers.  Each has a different answer.  But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.

4 father
My dad (Jim) and I at my sister's apartment, Christmas 1987. Someone is under the mistletoe.

Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.”  (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!  Also, please forgive the masculine imagery for God.)

We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction.  The second stanza has something to say about that:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”

As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father.  So much violence has been done in that name.  But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves.  With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.

[2] E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co., 1964), 155.


family ties

Sometimes when I’m watching television, a commercial will come on in which the advertisers make an interesting promise. Whether it’s a business that will bake you a pizza or fix your car, this is their claim: “We treat you like family.” In fact, I think that the Olive Garden makes such a claim. I recently said to Banu, “‘Treating you like family’ is not necessarily a good thing.” I can think of plenty of people, and plenty of situations, in which being treated like family would be a bad thing—even a terrible thing! In fact, something you might avoid like the plague is being treated like family!

Something similar to that is a humorous observation about family. It’s the idea that every family has an oddball. (Some more than one!) Maybe it’s the uncle with wild conspiracy theories, like the secret army of dolphins being trained by the military in mind control. Or maybe it’s the cousin who insists on speaking with a British accent, even though she isn’t British. (I’ll let you decide if I invented these people, or if they actually exist.) But here’s the point: if you can’t think of an oddball in the family, then it’s probably you!

This is all about putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional”! The Bible is no stranger to dysfunctional families. It is filled with them, from start to finish. Genesis 25 gives us a look at one such family—the family of Isaac and Rebekah. We’ll get to the dysfunctional part in a moment, but first we have a theme that is repeated several times in the scriptures: a woman who is said to be barren.

In ancient times (and even today, in some quarters), if a couple could not conceive, it was almost always considered to be a problem with the woman. She was the soil to receive the man’s seed. And if nothing took root, then there was something wrong with the soil.

Before the invention of microscopes, the idea that some men’s seed were not very good swimmers never occurred to them! (By the way, contrary to what we now know about chromosomes, it was thought that the woman determined whether the baby would be a boy or a girl.) Along those lines, it was often thought that, with couples who could not conceive, the woman was cursed by God. She was being punished.Amazingly enough, there are still some people today who have that idea.

Accordingly, Isaac sought divine intervention for Rebekah. And guess what? It worked. They had been married for twenty years before Isaac was born. That’s a long time for people to look down on you, to make you feel like you’re worthless. Who knows what stories were passed around? Who knows what tales were told? In any event, when they find out that Rebekah is pregnant, it looks like they’re home free. This is an answer to prayer. But hold on a minute: Rebekah has a difficult pregnancy. In fact, her suffering is so great that she gets to the point of wondering if life is even worth living (v. 22).

When she does give birth, there are twin boys who are said to be struggling with each other—as if they could possibly know to do that! The first to come into the world is Esau, but Jacob is right behind him, holding onto his heel. The author of our story, looking back in time, sees this as a sign of things to come, of fighting between their descendants.

There’s something that I hope we all know—and if you don’t, you find this out pretty soon. It’s that, when you get married, you are also marrying the other person’s family. That’s something I make sure those with whom I do premarital counseling understand. In my case, I have a little bit of a buffer, since my in-laws literally live on the other side of the world! Still, my wife and I are both products of our families.

We don’t know very much about Rebekah’s family, but we have a good bit of insight into Isaac’s upbringing. I won’t go into great detail, but the son that Abraham fathers with Hagar, the servant of Sarah, becomes the focus of jealousy and contention. (Honestly, who could have foreseen such an outcome?) Ishmael is pitted against his half-brother, Isaac. There’s another problematic event in Isaac’s childhood. It happens when his father tries to kill him!

Abraham thinks God wants him to do it, but going on a camping trip, the highlight of which is the father tying the son to an altar, while brandishing a dagger, doesn’t help very much in father-son bonding! It’s probably not the best of role models in showing one’s son how to be a father. Who can say what effect this has on Isaac?

One thing we can say is that he and Rebekah play favorites with the two boys. As the scripture says, “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (vv. 27-28).

Esau’s idea of fun would be to go out and shoot a deer, but Jacob would just as soon read a book. Esau is the outdoorsman, while Jacob is more the stay-at-home type. And based on the next paragraph, it looks like he learns a thing or two about cooking from his mother. The way it’s presented, Esau is the impulsive one; Jacob is the intentional one. One wonders how much influence his mother has had on him.

At any rate, one day Esau comes home and smells the stew that his twin brother has been whipping up. Esau blurts out, “That smells delicious! Give me some of that stuff.” He’s the older twin, so the inheritance that goes to the eldest son belongs to him. Jacob replies, “You can have it on one condition: let’s switch places and give me your birthright.”

“Fine,” says Esau, “I don’t care about that stuff. Here I am, starving to death. I’m ready to eat!”

It would seem that Esau isn’t the sharpest tool in the drawer, so to speak. But maybe he isn’t as dim-witted as the scripture portrays him. We have to admit that this is told from the perspective of Jacob, later known as Israel (32:28).

There is a certain bias at work. I think it’s fair to say that we don’t know all of Esau’s motivations. Is it possible that he is relieved to be rid of the responsibilities that go with being the elder son? Esau knows how his brother is. Could it be that this is the opportunity he’s been waiting for?

733px-Isaac_Blessing_Jacob_-_Govert_Flinck

Isaac Blessing Jacob -- Govert Flinck (1638)

Whether or not that’s the case, how does that play into our own families? Some of us are an only child. The rest of us fall somewhere in the order of siblings. What were, and possibly still are, the expectations laid on each of us? Which of those expectations are unwanted, and on the flip side, which of those are desired? Much of life is based on things we didn’t choose; much of it is based on an accident of birth.

When we bring in the element of faith, we find out that God makes choices in the family. Isaac, rather than Ishmael, is chosen. (Though Muslims say the opposite is true.) And Jacob, rather than Esau, is chosen. Again, the author is looking back in time and seeing how things played out.

But we can still ask, on what basis is one chosen, rather than the other? It seems so arbitrary.

Aside from that, they all have their dysfunctions. None of them is deserving of blessing. One writer says, “In that all of these undeserving characters are so deeply flawed…God’s choice was clearly not based upon merit.”

This is a radical picture of grace—undeserved grace, as grace is by definition.

On that note about the often arbitrary nature of life, the often random nature of life: none of us chose the family we were born into. And in my case, I didn’t choose the family I was adopted into.

I have to say that I am not a fan of country music. Here’s where we get into what I just said about accident of birth and/or adoption. I was raised and loved by two people who were really into country music. When I was growing up, I was bathed in the sounds of Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn, just to name a few.

But there’s one song in particular that has stayed with me. It speaks of the frequently arbitrary nature of life—the cards that we’re dealt—but also, what we do with those cards. It’s “The Gambler,” by Kenny Rogers.

To set the stage, the singer is “on a train bound for nowhere” when he is joined by the gambler, who dispenses some advice about life. The gambler says that “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

But it’s the gambler’s final words that especially impress the singer: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em / Know when to fold ‘em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run / You never count your money / When you’re sittin’ at the table / There’ll be time enough for countin’ / When the dealin’s done.”

As the gambler has discovered, we don’t choose how we come into this world, but we do have a say in how we live in this world. Again, some decisions are made for us. We are not consulted in the matter. Some of us were dealt a lousy hand. Still, as the song says, “every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.”

Having said that, there is a reality we must admit. My current hero, Richard Rohr, puts it this way in On the Threshold of Transformation:

“Have you ever met [someone] who didn’t seem comfortable in [their] own skin?… Consider the possibility that, as a child, when that person first came into the world, [they were] not given the first permission—permission to exist.

Many people have never been given this foundational permission—either spoken or unspoken. No one ever held their face, looked into their eyes, and said, 'Welcome to the world, dear little one. I’m so happy you’re here, that you exist. I love you.’”

God gives us permission to exist. Indeed, God does much more than that. We have been adopted into the family of God.

In Romans 8, Paul says that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” (vv. 14-15).

We have received a spirit of adoption. What does that mean? What does it mean to receive a spirit of adoption? Among other things, it means that in God’s eyes, the hand we’ve been dealt, whether good, bad or indifferent, is not the one we’re stuck with. There’s something better.

Can we see how this applies to Jacob and Esau? For whatever reason—and as already mentioned, we don’t know all of his motivations—Esau rejects his birthright.

Here’s a question: what do we do with our birthright? Again, as with Esau, we haven’t chosen our birthright. Our birthright includes all of the images, the worldviews, the ways of looking at reality, even religious biases that were given to us by those who raised us.

Birthright includes the way we were shaped as children. But our adoption by God goes beyond all of that. Adoption into the family of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, brings us into a new relationship—a new creation. Our birthright is transformed into something in which the old rules no longer apply. It is a new kind of family tie. As disciples of Jesus, we hear his words “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21).