The Grand Sweep, Version 4

My two small churches and I continue a one-year reading plan through the Bible as  described in “The Grand Sweep” by Ellsworth Kalas.

If you are planning a sermon series, I can report that the early reaction to this project is  encouraging. About 2/3 of the people in these churches have chosen to participate, and they seem to be more involved and emotionally connected to worship and faith than in the past. It is wonderful to see.

Admittedly, we’re in the part of the Bible that contains the foundational people and events of our faith and thatalso abounds with rich and meaningful preaching material, so I don’t know what will happen when we hit Leviticus (in two weeks!) or get challenged by the prophets, but people seem to want to be told the story of the Bible. They do not seem to know it. At least in United Methodism, this is because we haven’t been teaching it, at least on a widespread basis.

I’ve also changed my preaching style in these first few weeks from narrative to teaching. My efforts have not equaled the possibilities of  the material, but it is a blessing to me both to read through the Bible and see our members’ reaction to it.

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“God Making a People,” Genesis 32:26-30; 38:24-36a; 45:7-8a; Matthew 1:1-3a; Romans 8:28

If you have a Bible, please join me in opening it to Genesis 45:3-8.

These verses strike me as best summarizing not only the chapters we read this week but also the Biblical story line of God’s continuing work among humankind.

I didn’t do a good job of describing God’s work last week, though, and want to step back and make another run at it before getting into this week’s readings.

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Starting with Genesis 12 and the call of Abram, God was doing something new and exciting!

God was beginning to create and shape a people, God’s people.

It is that work that is described throughout the Bible and it is that work that continues today with people like you and me.

We tend to read Genesis, Exodus and much of the Bible through a filter of knowing how the Jewish and Christian religions evolved, including the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

That filter clouds our understanding and makes these older events and people seem relatively unimportant.

We know the rest of the story, so the earlier parts don’t matter so much.

Except that they do.

We need to understand what God was doing then in order to understand what God is doing now and, along with that, what God is trying to do in us, you and me.

Thousands of years ago, when God called Abram, humankind was in bad shape.

We couldn’t seem to get it right.

Sin and evil abounded, along with their component parts of things like pride, greed, selfishness and violence.

They abounded so much that God flooded the earth and left only one surviving family and, later, they again abounded so much that God scattered humankind across the earth.

It was then, after the Tower of Babel fell, that God decided to reverse the spiral of death and destruction caused by the sin and evil that gripped humankind.

It was then that God decided to create and shape a people who would be a different people from those which had come before them.

God decided to create and shape a people, God’s people, who would bless the world.

However, God had to work through people to do that.

The first person he tried to work through, or at least the first person to say ‘yes,’ was Abram.

Back when God called Abram, there was not an ethnic group called Hebrews or a country called Israel or a Jewish or Christian religion or an Old or New Testament, or any testament at all.

God would get around to those things, but they would come later.

In the stories we’ve read the past two weeks in Genesis 12-45, God was in the earliest stages of God’s great project with humankind.

He began with a man who was part of an Aramean family.

The Aramean people, and Abram and his family, were native to an area in the Middle East located is in present day Iraq.

At some point in time, though, Abram’s father pulled up stakes and moved northeast to an area around the present-day border of Syria and Turkey. That area is referred in Genesis as Haran.

It was when Abram was living with his family in Haran that God called him to go to a land which God would give to him. At the same time, God promised that Abram would become a great nation and that his name would be great and that he would be blessed to be a blessing.

Abram went.

He took with him his wife, Sarah. They had one son, Isaac.

Laster, Isaac returned to the family homeland of Haran to marry Rebekah. Rebekah and Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob.

In those days, God was growing a family– and increasing God’s people.

More was to come.

After Abram and Isaac, Jacob was the one God chose over Esau to be our ancestor in the faith, the one who would inherit the promises God had given to his father and grandfather.

Just like his father, Jacob returned to the family homeland of Haran to marry. He married Leah and Rachel and had 12 sons and one daughter born to him.

It is this line of Arameans, beginning with AbraSpeciallm, whom God chose to be what we might call the “First Family of Faith,” or at least, our first family in the faith, our spiritual heirs.

They were the first in a long family line, that includes (I think, although many would disagree) all Christians and all Jews.

Now, imagine that Abraham’s family had one of those big family reunions back then—his and Sarah’s child, grandchildren and great grandchildren. That reunion would have around 70 people attending.

A big reunion, to be sure, but God’s work was not done.

God was not just creating and making a family but creating and making a people as numerous as the stars.

What we will see next week is that God was busily at work in the two or three centuries that passed between the time of the events described in these final chapters of Genesis and those described in Exodus.

Specifically, God was busy multiplying and shaping God’s people.

By the time of Moses, Abraham’s family of seventy had grown to number hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people.

It was those hundreds of thousands, or even millions, who were slaves in Egypt who came to be called Hebrews, sojourn to the Promised Land and begin the religion we know as Judaism.

And, the Good News is that God is still calling, creating and shaping his people right through today, right through us, even us, in our little church.

God was doing something new then and is doing something new today!

God’s great work of creating and shaping a people is the story of the Bible and continues today!

Hallelujah!

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Let’s return to Genesis 45 and get an idea about the scene that was unfolding that day.

I imagine that it takes place in a huge room, a room bigger than this church. The room is decorated with Egyptian works of art, shoulder-high vases, busts of past pharaohs and gilded ornamentation around the ceiling. It is an impressive and imposing area.

I picture Joseph, son of Jacob, seated in the rear of the room, high and mighty on a throne.

Joseph had risen to be second in command of Egypt, accountable only to the Pharaoh.

He was wearing his best second-in-command, Big Shot attire: crown on his head, staff in his right hand, gold band around his forehead, wearing a pure white robe with his finest leather sandals.

His attendants were arrayed around him and dressed like him—but a little less so. No crown, but white robes, leather sandals, and spears not staffs in their right hands.

They were standing at attention in front of the boss.

It was an important moment.

A bunch of men from Canaan were groveling on the floor before Joseph.

They did not know it, but they were the brothers of that powerful man on the throne.

They were the ones who thought about killing him years earlier but, instead, sold him into slavery.

Their clothes were dirty and torn. They were bowing their heads in submission. They were afraid for their lives. They had just been arrested and hauled before this man for stealing a silver goblet.

And, they were foreigners. They were dispensable. The man on the throne could punish them and even kill them for what they did.

Let’s listen to what happened in Genesis 45:3-8:

“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”

Let’s emphasize these words, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God . . .”

The main theme of the Bible and of Genesis was playing out in that courtroom drama—God was working in the world to bless and make a people—His people.

Mind you, it had not been easy, because God had been trying to work through human beings.

Human beings in all their glory and goodness, to be sure, but also with all their sins, mistakes, misunderstandings, pettiness, rivalries, hard-heartedness, and family dysfunction, etc.

But, hallelujah! God was at work! God was at work!

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Let’s take a step back and remember what led up to Joseph proclaiming God’s work.

We began at chapter 28, with the father of Joseph and his brothers, a man named Jacob.

In that chapter, we read that Jacob’s father, Isaac, had blessed him, and that Jacob had then hightailed it out of there. It was “feet don’t feel me now” moment.

He was running area from his home, his land, out of fear of his brother, Esau. He had cheated Esau out of his rightful birthright and blessing.

That was a big deal, because an older brother is those days was destined to get the lion’s share of his father’s estate. And, their daddy Isaac was a rich man.

But, those became Jacob’s . . . and Jacob was not letting the sun set that night with him anywhere near Esau. Instead, he hightailed it north to the family’s ancestral lands in Haran.

Of course, we know that Jacob was a greedy and grabby man, one we would charitably call a cheat. He had snookered his father and hurt his brother, all for his own gain.

The greedy sonuvagun stopped for the night, and you know what happened?

He had a dream and God came.

And, that night, God promised the sun, moon and stars to Jacob. We read about it in Genesis 28:13-15:

“And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’”

If you remember having heard something like those words before, it is because you have.

God gave Jacob the promises that God first gave to Abraham and then to Isaac. Jacob, greedy, grabby cheat that he was, was now in the line of succession.

You have heard of God the Potter?

In Jacob, God had chosen a misshapen blob of clay. To further show you what a greedy, selfish, self-centered man Jacob was, he basically told God at the end of Chapter 28, after having received this lavish blessing, “Okay. If you give me all this, and keep up your end of the bargain, I will let you be my God.”

What a guy.

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However, God does God’s work over time, and God shapes people over time. So, as the years passed, Jacob changed. He became a better man, in some ways a new man, because God worked in him.

As the sun rose the morning after Jacob received God’s blessing, he resumed his journey. Remember that he was going back to the family lands, looking for his Uncle Laban.

He found Laban and the funniest thing happened. We call it “just desserts.”

Laban cheated Jacob. We won’t go into all the ways but let me tell you the first way.

Jacob got to Laban’s house, saw his daughter Rachel and fell head over heels in love with her.

This was at a time when there was not romantic marriage. People married out of convenience or arrangement. But, Jacob was in love.

Laban said, “Okay. You can marry her . . . but only if you work for me 7 years.”

Jacob said, “I’ll do it.”

I think this is evidence that Jacob’s consciousness was beginning to extend past himself. It now reached to Rachel and included her. After all, 7 years out of a life is no small thing.

Seven years passed. On the day of the wedding, there was a big blowout party. Everybody was invited. I can’t explain what happened to Jacob that, but maybe he got blottoed drunk.

Anyway, the happy newlyweds disappeared into a tent and consummated the marriage.

Let’s read Genesis 29:25 to see what happened the next morning, “When morning came, it was Leah!”

Laban had substituted his daughter Leah for Rachel!

Jacob, of course, was not happy.

He demanded of Laban, “What have you done to me? Why have you cheated me?”

Laban sweetly replied that Leah was the older daughter and had to marry before Rachel.

He then said, “Work for me another 7 years and you can have Rachel.”

Jacob agreed. Again, he gave some of his years for love, and he worked another 7 years for Rachel.

Then, over a course of years, the sons of Jacob were born, 12 of them. With a couple of substitutions that came later, these 12 were going to become the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Four different women gave birth to those 12—Leah, Leah’s maid (Zilpah), Rachel and Rachel’s maid (Bilhah).

Meanwhile, Jacob became wealthy in what ended up being decades working for Laban—after he had started with nothing. He was shrewd in business and came to be shrewd in dealing with Laban.

Over time, Jacob matured and grew.

That is shown more fully when God called Jacob to return to his homeland, the promised land.

Jacob got buy-off from Rachel and Leah to go back home. That was not the old Jacob.

Soon, they headed back to the Promised Land, Jacob and his wives, concubines and sons; camels and sheep; tents and candlesticks; and, everything else.

That was not an easy thing to do for Jacob, because he was heading to a reunion big brother Esau.

The last we heard, and the last Jacob heard, Esau was raging mad at Jacob to the point of murder.

But, you see, Jacob was following God’s will. It was God’s call to return to his homeland. Jacob no longer considered God as an object beholden to him. Instead, he finally recognized God as God and put his destiny in God’s hands.

However, as he neared his homeland and Esau, Jacob more and more quiet and more and more afraid.

The night before they were to meet, Jacob made sure everyone and everything went across the Jabbok River, while he stayed on other side.

Jacob may have thought that he was going to spend the night alone.

He was wrong. You can read what happens in Genesis 32:23-33. In brief, though, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious being until dawn. All night.

Jacob even got wounded in the battle. His opponent dislocated his hip socket, something that caused him to limp the rest of his life.

Here is the central verse, Genesis 32:28-30:

“Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So, Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”

Jacob had changed. He had struggled with God and people and found himself in the process.

At least, I think that his what it means for him to “have prevailed.”

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But, to go just a bit deeper, we prevail when we surrender ourselves to the Lord.

That is when a Christian finds out who they are.

That is when they become one of God’s people . . . when they are surrendered to God, when they are in obedient relationship to the One who makes, calls and shapes them, when they have matured as Jacob did.

In his struggle that night, and likely before, I also think Jacob struggled with the same things we struggle with, the things we have to come to terms with, as we age and mature in our lives.

Things like faith, doubt, sin, fear, passion, prejudice and regret, but also dreams and hopes and desires.

As with Jacob, the good news is that we are not only struggling with God, but that God is with us and helping us in the struggle.

Just as God worked on Jacob over time, so God is with us, working away, shaping us into one of God’s people or, we might say, part of the body of Christ.

That is what most struck me as I finished reading these chapters and thought about what they taught me about God and those people and myself.

God was at work, maybe hidden, but God was at work.

God is still at work, creating and shaping a people and creating and shaping us.

I want to close with some verses that came to mind as I pondered God’s great work across time, beginning with this Aramean family and continuing across the centuries to us, you and me and our brothers and sisters in faith across the world. They are from Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy . . .
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his bidding,
obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Amen.

Bless the Lord.

 

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