Sunday, July 06, 2014

Pentecost 4A

Today’s Old Testament reading begins in the middle of a story. Actually, it starts in the middle of a sentence, and we only hear part of the conversation that sets the story in motion. And in this reading we hear only bits and pieces, as the lectionary folks suggest that we leave out a few verses.

It’s as if they’re in a hurry to get to the point of the story, they want to rush to the end, bypassing some conversation along the way.

And I guess it makes sense. After all this story is about the next generation taking over. It’s a passing of the torch. An opportunity for fresh blood and new ideas to emerge. And as we all know, the younger generation tends to be in more of a hurry than their elders.

Genesis chapter 24 starts out by saying “Abraham was now old, and advanced in years...” This may sound innocent enough, but we have to remember that Abraham was already almost 100 years old when God called him out of retirement to be a father of nations. And he and his wife Sarah toiled for years after they received the promise to parent a new people.

But everyone is called home at some point, no matter how many years they’ve put on this earth. And when that that time comes, someone needs to take over, a new leader needs to step in and take charge.

And Isaac, for better or for worse, was that person.

Isaac can be described, at best, as a placeholder leader. He’s sandwiched between two towering figures. His father Abraham and his son Jacob.

It’s not that Isaac was evil or that greatness was not in him, he was simply uninspiring. While his father Abraham is said to have  “hungered and thirsted for righteousness,” Isaac seemed to hunger only for his lunch.

Even next to his brother Ishmael, Isaac seemed small. Ishmael was the motorcycle driving bad boy who probably got all the girls, while Isaac stayed home and played video games all night, never giving any thought to his life or his future.

You might remember that Isaac and Ishmael were half-brothers. Ishmael was born of Hagar, a maid that Abraham impregnated; while Isaac was the miracle child that Sarah bore. 

And even though Isaac was the fruit of God’s faithfulness, he never really lived up to expectations. After all, if you’re born from a barren womb, how to do top that?

It wasn’t that Isaac was lacking in brains or potential. He was just unambitious. He was passionless. He had no direction. He simply floated down the current of life, not really thinking about where he would end up.

He waited until he was almost forty before getting married, and even that was a surprise. While I’m sure that Abraham and Sarah were dropping the occasional hint about how wonderful it would be to have grandchildren, Isaac probably came home from work each day, crashed in front of the TV, and let the days and evenings slip into weeks and years, with little to show for it.

So when Rebekah arrives on the scene and agrees to be his wife (the first time EVER in the bible where the bride actually gives her consent to be married), it’s like an alarm clock had woken him up, and he wanted to get married RIGHT away, even though both their families suggest that they wait a while before rushing into a lifetime commitment.

Isaac’s anxious to get going. This was HIS time! Maybe he knows that his dad is sick. Maybe he can see his mom slowing down.

Maybe he looked around and saw that all Abraham and Sarah were asked to do was accomplished and realized that it was his turn to lead.

And he was right. Although the story doesn’t come right out and say it, Abraham does die, as does Sarah. And now Isaac is left alone, trying to figure out how to take charge of a people looking for guidance.

But his initial enthusiasm soon fizzled into a settled mediocrity. If you follow his career you’d probably give Isaac a B or B-. He enjoyed some success and endured some failures; but accomplished nothing of note. He was involved in some shady business dealings and lost a lot of money, but gained most of it back.

He ruled competently but charted no new course. He was a capable manager but had no new vision for his people. Under his watch the camels ran on time but he inspired no devotion. 

It wasn’t the force of destiny that compelled him to grab hold of the leadership reigns.

It was like he was just taking over the family business and lacked the passion that gave rise to its institution. If Isaac weren’t Abraham’s son and Jacob’s dad, we probably would never have heard of him.

His personal life was also troubled. Like his parents, Isaac and Rebekah had trouble getting pregnant. And when they did have kids he couldn’t control his sons, Jacob and Esau. He even fought with his wife over who was the favourite. Rebekah favored Esau where Isaac favoured Jacob. That must have made for interesting dinner conversation.

Isaac was a manager, but he was not a role model. He is the bridge between his father Abraham “The Father of Many Nations” and his son Jacob whose offspring formed the twelve tribes of Israel. He was a transition. An interim. No one to admire or hate.

So what can we learn from Isaac? What does he have to teach us?

The point of Isaac’s life wasn’t that he was an uninspiring, mediocre, leader who didn’t quite live up to expectations. 

The point of Isaac’s life was that he was a promise fulfilled. He was a child of Abraham and Sarah, the miracle child, who has his own place in salvation history.

He is the father of Jacob, who was the father of Joseph, who led Egypt through a terrible famine, and brought prosperity to the region.

Isaac may be the middle-child of history, but he did his job the way he was supposed to. To me that’s backhanded good news.

When I worry that I haven’t lived up to my potential (and I know I haven’t) I know I’m in good company, and that God can and does use me for God’s own purposes just the way I am.

This doesn’t mean that I can stop striving to be better at what I do. But that I can use my gifts to contribute to God’s on-going promise of creating a new and better world.

It doesn’t mean that I can float through life until my days come to an end and have nothing to show for it, but that I have been given a job to do, a mandate to fulfill, and mission for my life, so that when my days are completed I can point to what I’ve built and say, “This is what I’ve contributed to God’s creative vision.”

It doesn’t mean that I can stop and rest on the laurels I’ve inherited from other church leaders, or live off the hard work of Christians of generations past, but that I can use the time that I’ve been given to build a stronger church to pass on to the next generation.

However, it DOES mean that I can fail. It means that I can be human. It means that I don’t have to worry about God’s promised future for the church or the world, because, while I contribute to that future, I’m not in charge of that future. I’ll let God worry about that future instead. 

Like Isaac, each one of you here, like everyone who has gone before us, is a promise fulfilled. 

Each one of you here is a shining star that Abraham saw when he looked up at the night sky and saw his future. 

Each one of you here was put on this planet to use your gifts, no matter what they are, to bridge the gap from the past to the future, a future of God’s own making, but built with human hands.

The history of the church has human fingerprints all over it with occasions of great triumph and moments of devastating failure. The mission of the church is of divine origin but has been achingly human in its implementation. 

And it continues to be. Because God has chosen us - at this moment, with all our strengths and limitations - to build the bridge from a scattered past to an unknown future. 

We know that some days we will succeed and some days we will fail. But our every days, the daily moment-by-moment encounters of our lives may seem small and insignificant, but they add up to a larger vision of what God wants for us and the world, and moves God’s salvation story forward until that day comes when we hand what we’ve received and what we’ve built over to the next generation, and we rest from our labours .

So today, we can remember Isaac not as a cautionary tale of ignored potential, but as a parent of grace, of reminder of God’s ongoing faithfulness to that original promise God made to Abraham and Sarah, an example of God choosing the wrong people for the right reasons, as evidence that we are not in charge of the world’s salvation.

And for that I can say, “Thanks be to God.”

May this be so among us. Amen.


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