My sermon this past Sunday was the second in a year-long series of our congregational reading plan taking us through the Bible. It’s based on “The Grand Sweep,” a book authored by J. Ellsworth Kalas that provides a reading plan and daily commentary that goes from Genesis to Revelation.
The first sermon I gave was actually “Sermon Light,” in that the bulk of it gave some background and housekeeping rules for the year (commit to reading, take notes, ask questions, etc.), while only about one-third focused on the first week’s readings.
My sermon goal in this second week was to introduce people to the Bible’s main story line of God creating and redeeming a people.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work, at least in part—while it may have fed a few, it confused about the same number.
Nonetheless, it does reveal at least my understanding of the basic Bible story line and also helped me grapple with the biblical story and think how that relates to what God is doing in the world and how we are called to respond.
Making a People (Genesis 12-27)
Last week, I talked about some preliminary matters for our year of reading through the Bible and added a few points about the verses we read, Genesis 1-13 and Psalms 1-11.
This week we read Genesis 14-27 and Psalms 12-19.
It was a hard week for me, at least in my role as preacher because I ended it befuddled in deciding what to preach on. The stories in these chapters combine into a cornucopia of preaching points. Just like fruits or vegetables spill out of most cornucopias we see, so this preaching cornucopia overflows with ripe and juicy topics.
Let me try to give justice to them, though, and start with a bird’s eye view of the story flow.
The readings in some sense reach back to the first week and include the call of Abraham and the promises God made to him about land, descendants and blessings.
They told of Abraham accepting God’s call and leaving his home and moving with his wife and all his slaves and property to a new land, presumably trusting that God’s promises would come true.
But, soon a famine came, and Abram and Sarai left that land to travel to Egypt to live for a short time. You might have been especially struck with the part of that story that told of Abram passing Sarai off as his sister.
The happy couple was reunited, though, and soon return to the promised land, where they prospered.
God came and renewed the covenant promise he had made with Abram, to make of him a great nation and give him land and descendants.
But, he and Sarai both suffered because they were childless and growing old. How could they have descendants when they had grown so old that Sarai would not be able to bear children?
Sarai decided to solve the problem. She decided that if she was not going to bear a child, she would give to Abram a woman who could bear a child.
So, she offered Abram her slave girl, named Hagar, as a possible baby-maker.
Yes, Hagar was considered property to be passed off like that. Here Abram. . . do as you will with her.
Abram said, “Okay.”
Hagar, of course, had no choice in the matter and she soon gave birth to Abram’s first son, Ishmael.
Maybe he would be the descendant.
But God say, “No, not the one. Sarai will bear the child for your descendants who will be heirs to the covenant promise, the blessings, I give to you.”
Meanwhile, Sarah got jealous of Hagar and Ishmael.
I guess they were a flag of failure waving in her face every day.
She told Abram to throw them out—and he did.
That is WOW kind of stuff. . . and just the first few chapters!
The stories keeping going on: Abram and Sarai laughing at God for promising that they would have a son; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah being incinerated for their evil; and then, Sarah having a baby boy and the boy, Isaac, becoming heir to all the promises God had made to his father, Abraham; then, Abraham threw Hagar and Ishmael out for good; then God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac but relented in the last-minute.
That is not all! The readings went on!
Isaac married Rebekah. Rebekah become pregnant and suffered through her two baby-boys-to-be fighting in her womb. Then the boys were born and their battle kept going on.
As we ended our reading, Jacob has stolen his older brother’s birthright and blessing and Rebekah tells him to flee the area because of her concern about what an enraged Esau would do to him.
Brothers and sisters, there was no home sweet home in these chapters.
It was more like “Peyton Place in Palestine” or maybe an early version of “All My Children.”
If you had the blessing of reading these stories, you likely can agree that they were about ordinary people, warts and all, many warts and all, living out their lives in times of great happiness and sadness; laughter and tears; hope and despair; victories and defeats; and faith and doubt.
Just like us.
Through it all, God was working in them to bring about His will.
You and I are now the latest participants in the story of “What Is God Doing on Earth?”
After reading all these stories, I couldn’t settle on what to preach. Couldn’t decide.
Then, I pulled out some books on the Old Testament, and looked at a couple from one of my favorite scholars and writers.
Elizabeth Achtemeier more or less said at different places in those books that preachers need preach about God and what God is doing.
So, taking that advice, let me tell you what I think God is doing in all these chapters through all these people and the events of their lives, all of which happened almost 4000 years ago.
God is making and shaping a people, His people.
People like you and me.
That was what he began doing and continues to do.
But, as Professor Achtemeier also noted, we need to step back a bit to understand not only what God was doing but gain a bit of insight on why God was doing it.
Last Sunday, we talked a little bit about creation and Adam and Eve and went on through the stories of Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the flood and then the scattering of all the peoples at the Tower of Babel.
We read and heard about God making everything, putting people in paradise and then seeing them turn away from him to their own self-centered whims and desires.
That basic theme played out in story after story in those first 11 chapters of Genesis— people turning away from God and heeding their desires and passions, even to the point of murder, in order to glorify themselves.
At least until the point when God called Abram. . . and Abram said, “Yes.”
As we think the people and events we read about this week, and talk about what God is doing, we need to first understand that everything happening after Genesis 1-11 are based on those earlier people and events.
Those first 11 chapters are known as the Bible’s primeval history.
They are critical to understanding the rest of the story.
You see, those first 11 chapters, as I said last week, tell us about God, creation, and human beings. . . and equally as important, the relationship between them.
Another way to put it, those first 11 chapters tell us about who God is, who we are and what our relationship is.
So, look again at those first chapters and get firmly in mind what those ancient stories were about.
You remember the Garden of Eden.
Eve ate the forbidden fruit.
Adam did, too (by the way, he blames her, something husbands do that has never grown old).
Their decision to disobey God’s will exemplifies the relationship we all have to God, every one of us.
We want to be in charge!
And, we push God out of the picture!
The rest of the stories in our first week—Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark and humankind and the Tower of Babel, basically show sin spreading and infecting all humankind and God judging that sin.
They are about good and evil and consequences.
For example, Cain grows jealous of Abel, brother is set against brother, and Cain kills Abel.
God’s judgement is to make Cain becomes a fugitive and a wanderer on the face of the earth, cut off from community.
Later in that same chapter, there is a story about Lamech’s terrible sword of vengeance. Again, more violence and murder.
God looks at what is happening in the world. Genesis 6 says that God sees that every idea of human minds is evil and God is sorry that for making us.
Then the rains come.
Noah and his family are left.
But, things don’t get any better when the earth dries.
Instead, humans get together to climb to the heights of heaven in order to make a name for themselves and take charge of their glory. . . and, who knows?, maybe challenge the divine order of things.
God looks on and does not like that. God thought it was humans once again being selfish, vain and misguided.
So, the Bible says God confused human languages and scattered the people across the face of the earth, presumably to sin away in our selfishness as magnified by our inability to communicate with and understand one another.
So, as the primeval history of Genesis ends the future looks grim for humankind.
Adam and Eve and Cain and their heirs had corrupted all of God’s good gifts—God’s gifts of paradise; family and love; beauty and work; community among neighbors and peace among nations; and, of fellowship with God.
Humans were alienated from God and each other.
The outlook was bleak.
Someone could disagree and say, “Pastor, there was some grace in all of that.”
True enough. As we talked about last week, God’s grace and power are always at work. God did create all that is. God made us in his image. Adam and Eve weren’t killed by God. In fact, God clothed them and helped Eve bear and child. God even tried to protect Cain after the murder. And, Noah, his family and representatives of every living creature were saved on the ark.
And, after the flood, humans began again.
But, things still looked bleak after the Tower. God separated the people. God confused their languages. And, God exiled them to foreign lands.
We can look back with 20-20 hindsight and say, “No worries now. That wasn’t God’s last word.”
That is kind of the point.
It was not God’s last word.
We were not cut off from God and each other into eternity.
We were not all fated to die, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, back to the earth from which God formed us.
Instead, in about 1750 BC, God called a man named Abram out of his home in Mesopotamia.
That began the Bible drama and the drama of God’s new work on earth that Abram and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob were part of and that you and I are part of now.
God told Abram to leave behind his country, his kinfolk, and his closest relatives, and to journey to an unknown land that God would show to him.
God also gave Abram a three-fold promise.
God said, “I give you and your descendants a land which will be your own, a land of milk and honey.”
“I will make of you and your descendants a great nation and your name be renowned.”
“And through you and your descendants, I will bring blessing to all the families of the earth.”
Now pay attention.
When God called Abram and made those promises, God began a new thing—to reverse what happened in those earlier chapters.
hHe was beginning to make God’s people, in short, a people blessed to be a blessing.
So, from the Bible’s point of view, in those primeval stories, we brought upon ourselves the curse of devastation and drudgery and death.
But, in the verses we read this week, God promises to turn it all into blessing through the people of God. . . which began around 1750 BC with Abram but runs through this morning and includes you and me.
What God is doing in the life of those people we read about this week— Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob is beginning to grow and to shape his people.
His goal, remember, is to bless the world and restore and reunite humankind with Him.
But first, he needed someone to say yes to him. Abram did. His people begin from that one man.
What we read about in Genesis 13-27, even if we do not see it directly, is God working through human doubt, human frailty, human misunderstanding, and human dishonesty to create his people.
In the weeks ahead, we will see more names added to that list. . . a list that grows with each day.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, God has been and is still working in the world.
He is working to bless us; to make us a new people, a new community born in love and the spirit, a new people of God, who through faith know the wonder of life in the kingdom and eternal life in the name of God.
That is might be hard to see as we read about Abraham and Sarah laughing at God’s promises; Abraham plodding up a mountain to execute Isaac; and Esau and Jacob struggling in their mother’s womb; or, maybe in our moments of doubt, meanness, selfishness or jealousy.
But God was there and is there now. God is seeking to bless you so that you will become a blessing and live eternally as one of his people.
Thanks be to God.