What you meant for evil, God used for good (Joseph’s story)

Sermon preached 8/21/2011 at Burke UMC
Text: Genesis 45:1-15

How long does it take for the past to become water under the bridge? How do we handle bumping into people from our past who did things that still bother us today? I’ve been thinking about this question lately as I’m preparing to go to my fifteenth high school reunion. There will be some people there who treated me poorly once upon a time. Now the great thing about high school reunions for nerdy kids like me is that we tend to be more successful than the cool kids who bullied us. There’s an art to rubbing it in when you’ve got a pretty wife and a good job and you’re talking to a former bully whose life hasn’t turned out quite as well. Continue Reading

The Pit (Joseph’s story)

Sermon preached at Lifesign, Burke UMC, 8/13/2011
Text: Genesis 37:1-24

I wanted to be Joseph. It was my senior year and it was my turn to be the star of the spring musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat. I remember rehearsing the songs and practicing my Joseph swagger in the mirror. I thought I had nailed the audition. I scoped out my competition and felt pretty good about my chances. But then this guy named Jesse rolled in. Continue Reading

God-Wrestler

Sermon preached at LifeSign, Burke UMC, Sat 8/6/2011
Text: Genesis 32:22-32

Jacob hadn’t been surprised when he saw the figure approaching him in the dark. He had not joined his wife and kids in crossing the river that night because he knew that there was someone or something he needed to face. “Brother, is that you?” called Jacob. The person didn’t answer. “Esau?” Jacob said. The man walked closer. “Friend, please tell me who you are and what I can do for you!” No sound except the man’s approaching footsteps. Continue Reading

The Morning After: Leah’s Rejection and Our Heritage

Sermon preached at Burke UMC, 7/30-31/2011
Text: Genesis 29:15-31

It was the morning after her wedding night, and Leah had never felt so alone. She remembered the day seven years ago when her sister told her about the new cousin Jacob who had come into town. She remembered her father’s whisper to her, “This is your chance.” Leah was the eldest. She was the one who was supposed to get married first. But the clock had been ticking and no man had been interested. Continue Reading

When the Escalator Breaks Down (Jacob’s Ladder)

Sermon preached on 7/23/2011 at Burke UMC Lifesign service
Text: Genesis 27-28 (Jacob’s ladder with back-story of stealing blessing from Esau)

[Note: The motif for this sermon was inspired by this video that we saw at a Virginia conference provisional elders' retreat. I showed the video before preaching the sermon so watch it before reading. It's hilarious and the sermon might not make sense without it.]

Everything was falling into place. Jacob’s life was like an escalator going up to heaven. First he bagged the family birthright from his brother Esau. Then he stole his father’s blessing. Jacob was on his way to greatness. Continue Reading

God Will Provide: Abraham & Isaac

I don’t know about you but if God told me to kill my oldest son and offer him as a sacrifice, I’d tell God to go kick rocks. Of course, God would probably make me eat the rocks. But seriously what’s going on with Abraham in this story? What happened to the crafty Abraham in Genesis 12 who went to Egypt and pretended like his wife was his sister so the Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him and he’d get lots of cattle and cash? What happened to the sassy Abraham in Genesis 19 who argued with God for twenty minutes over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah?

We’re used to thinking Abraham did whatever God told him but that really only happens twice. Last week, we talked about how God told Abram to finish the journey that his father started. Well, that wasn’t too hard. The place he was staying, Haran, was like the boring Midwest of the ancient Near East. If God tells you to leave the cornfields and go to California, that’s not a tough decision. But demanding your son as a sacrifice: that’s when the honeymoon is over.

It’s important to explain that it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to Abraham for God to expect a first-born sacrifice. All the ancient gods asked for it. So as Abraham was wandering around with God, he was probably waiting for God to pop the question. He had Ishmael as his backup son, so if something happened to Isaac, the estate would be intact. So what did God do? He waited until right after Abraham’s wife Sarah ran Ishmael off to show up and collect payment. If Abraham had been like most ancient Near Eastern fathers, he would have had 7 or 8 children and he could have said, “Sure, God, the first one’s a brat anyhow. You want him, he’s yours. My second son is so much more of a man.”

But Abraham wasn’t like most ancient Near Eastern fathers. His wife Sarah had been barren until God promised to give them a son at an age when it was biologically ridiculous. Isaac’s name in Hebrew is Yitzhak, which means “laughter,” because Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a son. God had performed a ridiculous miracle, so for Him to take it back would have been unspeakably cruel.

Now we know because the Bible tells us that this whole thing was just a test of Abraham’s faith. But Abraham didn’t know that. What did Abraham know and when did he know it? Abraham says two things which give us a hint. First, when he gets to the mountain of sacrifice, he tells his servants to wait with their donkeys while he and Isaac go to worship, saying specifically that “we will return,” meaning both he and Isaac, which he didn’t have to say. Then, when Abraham is walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son asks him where the sacrificial animal is, and Abraham says to his son, “God will provide a lamb for us.”

Now you might think that Abraham was lying to both his servants and his son. This cynical reading would be the only possible explanation if God had never promised to make a nation out of his offspring. Without that promise, the best Abraham could have done would have been to keep things pleasant until they had to get ugly. But Abraham had asked God directly in Genesis 15 if his servant Eliezer was going to inherit his estate and God said, no, your own flesh and blood will be your heir and your offspring shall be like the stars in the sky. And the Bible says, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

We don’t know how Abraham felt inside when he answered his son’s question. We don’t know if he believed all the way in God’s promise or if he was like the man many centuries later who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe! Help me with my unbelief!” Whatever was in Abraham’s head, what he said was God will provide. Say that with me one time: God will provide. It’s one of the most important phrases in the whole Bible. And the strange thing about this phrase is the people who say it the most are people in impossible circumstances like Abraham was.

Some of y’all know I was a pastor before I came here in a community where people were living on the edge, most of them behind on their rent and on the verge of getting either evicted or deported. And I’ve never heard a group of people say God will provide more than they did. The strange thing about faith is that it’s often hard to come by until you need it because you’ve got nothing else.

I live a pretty comfortable life, so the closest I come to being in a situation where I have to say God will provide is putting up door-hangers all over town, knowing good and well that any door-hangers left on my door go straight to the recycling bin, but hoping that somebody would actually give us a chance. God will provide. I want so badly for Him to provide if there’s somebody out there who’s having a rough time and needs a church family like the one in this room that has blessed me for the past year. God will provide. Saying that phrase is asking God to help me believe it and trying to convince myself that I do believe it at the same time.

Now somebody might ask, “Why say God will provide?” Isn’t this all just the power of positive thinking? Why not say instead “I will provide” and decide that you’re going to be successful until you are? And furthermore, Mr. Preacherman, you’re letting God off the hook too easily for asking Abraham to do something despicable? Test or not, I could never worship a God like that.

Let me answer both of the objections at once. The reason why it makes sense to say God will provide is that He has provided a lamb for us. Abraham surely didn’t realize it, but his answer to Isaiah’s question was one of the first prophetic declarations of the coming of Christ. The test God gave to Abraham was the beginning of a new religion that would be defined by the lack of child-sacrifice. Abraham and his descendants had an elaborate sacrificial system, but it never again would involve children like it did in other ancient cultures.

Now one thing we don’t understand in our modern world is that there’s a basic spiritual need that sacrifice addresses. Through the daily process of stepping on each other’s toes and getting in each other’s way, we build up a kind of rage that needs to let itself out. If the pressure builds and there’s no outlet, then it gets released chaotically in emotional volcanoes which cause people to get hurt. In our modern world, we deal with this pressure by medicating ourselves whether it’s prescribed by a doctor or not. But in ancient Israel, the way people got rid of their bad blood was through sacrifice. By offering sacrifices to God, the Israelites could let go of their sins and their grudges against others’ sins so they could live together in peace.

This worked for a time, but then God saw that the Israelite sacrificial system had been corrupted and turned into a power game for the religious hierarchy, so He pulled the most ultimate role reversal He could have. God came to Earth in the form of His Son Jesus and made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. God provided a lamb. That’s why it’s appropriate not only to say He will provide, but that He has provided. He not only stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son; God sacrificed Himself in the form of His Son Jesus. And because God has provided a lamb for us, we can take to His cross all of our baggage; all the anger, pain, and guilt from a lifetime of misunderstandings and betrayals can be washed clean in the only solvent that breaks down every sin – the blood of Jesus. God didn’t need His Son’s blood to prove anything to Himself; Jesus gave Himself up for us, the people who need a cross where we can put our rage, our doubt, and our fear, the people who cannot clean their own hearts in the way that only Jesus can.

God is always providing for us in all kinds of ways, whether it’s helping us find a spouse or a job or community to take care of us. But the most important thing God provides is freedom from the sins we have committed and the sins committed against us; we have a cross to put them on because God has given us a lamb for our salvation just like He did for Abraham.

Dream Interrupted: God’s Call to Abram

This summer, Pastor Larry and I are doing a sermon series about the deep roots that we have a Christian people. Our roots go back further than Jesus Himself. That’s why our Bible has an Old Testament. Jesus was Himself born into the people of Israel, so looking at the story of Israel’s founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph – is critical to understanding who we are as Christians. Being a Christian means more than just having a personal relationship with Jesus; it means becoming part of the story of God’s people. And we can’t get our story right as God’s people without going back to our roots, which start in the call of Abram.

In a similar way, we often get the story of Abram wrong by overlooking his own roots. This is largely because of the way that the chapters in Genesis are numbered. If you start talking about Abraham at the beginning of Genesis 12, you miss out on what he and his family were doing when God called him to head over to the promised land of Canaan and start a new nation. You have to go back to the final verses of Genesis 11 to realize that Abram and his family had already been on a journey to Canaan when God called. It was Abram’s father Terach (whose name means “the wanderer”) who originally set out from the ancient city Ur of Abram’s birth to journey to the promised land of Canaan. But Terach’s family for whatever reason couldn’t make it all the way to the promised land. They couldn’t make it further than Haran, which was the halfway point between Ur and Canaan.

The word “Haran” in Hebrew means “unquenchable thirst.” The town was located on the banks of the Tigris, the same river that ran down past Ur into what is now called the Persian Gulf. Perhaps Abram’s father Terach was fearful to leave a familiar river behind to cross through a desert wilderness to the promised land. We don’t know. But regardless, when God called Abram to hit the road, he was not calling Abram to a completely new journey out of the blue; he was calling Abram back to a journey that his father had started.

Our life journeys are often built from the journeys of our parents. That is to say that most of us, particularly when we’re young, live under the shadow of our parents’ dreams and expectations, whether this refers to our careers, the people we befriend, or what generally counts as happiness. We either accept these expectations or rebel against them, but either way they tend to define us. Either we accept the Canaan for which our parents set out and continue in their journey or we rebel and replace their Canaan with our own.

Over the past few years, I have discovered how much my identity is derived in the dreams of my father. He will always be the smartest man I have ever known and my greatest intellectual influence. He’s taught a Baptist Sunday school class continually for the past thirty years. My father’s passion is to find a way to explain the gospel to people in the scientific world where he spends most of his time as a medical researcher. For as long as I can remember, he’s been trying to reconcile God and science in the form of several brilliant manuscripts that he wrote in his spare time which have never been published.

This year, I’ve had some ideas I thought God wanted me to share with the world so I’ve been sending them around to Christian magazines. Nobody has even emailed me back except for the senior editor of Christianity Today, who actually responded very positively at first but has been backpedaling in every follow-up email since then. It’s been a tough experience, and I’ve filled up pages and pages of my journal asking God what He wants me to do. I want to get to Canaan so badly, but I’m stuck in Haran with this unquenchable thirst. Perhaps I’m chasing after the wrong Canaan of worldly success and respectability and relevance. I don’t feel like my calling to write is reducible to that, but maybe those motives need to be purged some more and that’s why God hasn’t let me leave Haran yet. In any case, the dream that I inherited from my father is interrupted for now.

Do you feel stuck in a place that’s far short of the promised land you were hoping to get to? Maybe your job feels like a dead-end. Maybe your life is whizzing by too fast for you to enjoy it. Maybe you’re just tired and thirsty all the time and you’ve mostly forgotten the dreams that you had when you started out except sometimes when you’re stuck in traffic or trying to get to sleep at night. Well, I think that God’s got some use for the dreams we decided to lay aside. He wants us to dust them off and pick them up again so that He can transform them into better, deeper dreams.

We don’t know what Abram thought he was doing when he first set out with his father Terach en route to the promised land of Canaan. What we do know is that when God tells Abram to pick his father’s dream back up, He turns it into a much deeper dream. God doesn’t just promise to take Abram to a certain physical location. His command to Abram is completely open-ended: “Go to the land I will show you.” Abram has to trust that God will explain as he goes along. And the land of Canaan that had been calling Abram’s father isn’t even what’s important. God tells Abram that He will make him into a great nation through whom all the people on Earth will be blessed. God takes the dream that Abram’s father had passed down to Abram and transforms it into the foundation for the Israelites that He will create to draw the world into His family through the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be born into this people to show all the nations the love of His Heavenly Father.

Maybe we’ve been dreaming too small. That’s okay because God can use the smallest of dreams for His purpose when we trust Him enough to hear His call and obey, just like Abram did, not knowing where we’re going but believing that God will show us where to go while we’re on the way there. Have you been chasing after the wrong promise land? Have you been stuck in a place of unquenchable thirst unsure of what your next move will be? Well God is calling you right now just like He called Abram to give yourself completely to the nation that God started through Abram, to become a branch on the vine of Israel’s Messiah and our Savior Jesus Christ who makes us into the people who exist to bless others. If we will trust and go like Abram trusted and went, we will find the promise land that God has prepared for us, and it might not look any different than the world that we’re walking through now except that our eyes will be opened by faith to see God’s kingdom all around us. God will show us the real dream that we’ve really had all along underneath the cheap and tacky dreams that the world has talked us into. So dream deep, put your trust in the Lord, and He will show you the Canaan that you never knew you were seeking.