The Place of Grace
The Abraham story is filled with new ideas about God, as we heard from Rob Bell earlier. It represents a dramatic shift within human understanding of God, with the way humans thought about God. It is a key place in the revelation of God to humanity. We always think of Jesus as the clearest and most central person in whom God is revealed. And that is so true. But even as we lift up Jesus, we must never forget how mind-blowing and thought-shattering the revelation of God was during the time of Abraham.
People had never conceived of a God like the one revealed to Abraham – a God who did not demand sacrifice like other Gods, a God who gives rather than takes, a God who provides, a God who is not simply a force to be appeased, a God who blesses all people everywhere, and most especially a God who can be trusted. People during this time had never conceived of a God like this, they had never known a God like this. Through Abraham, God revealed something new about God-self.
- Can you imagine how long it must have taken for this new idea to sink in?
- Can you imagine how difficult it must have been to try and convince people that this God was real when everything they could see and experience spoke to the contrary?
- Can you imagine how much push-back Abraham must have dealt with?
It’s like trying to convince people that the earth is round, not flat, without pictures from space. It’s like trying to convince someone that the earth’s average temperature is rising right after the coldest winter they can remember!
With all this, surely you can imagine that two generations after Abraham, folks are still struggling to accept and comprehend this new idea. Most especially Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. (Read Genesis 28:10-19a)
I imagine that Jacob was that kid with the eccentric grandpa who thinks God is on his side, that crazy old codger who actually believes God is going to make an entire nation of his descendants….yeah, right!
I can imagine that Jacob got picked on by friends and acquaintances in the community. “Crazy old Abe’s grandson..probably gonna grow up to be just like his Pa Isaac who is just like his grandpa. Truth is that family is going nowhere fast.”
Jacob just might have a bit of a rebellious tendency…so many kids do when living in the shadow of an eccentric relative. Perhaps, just perhaps, Jacob would distance himself from his ancestral beliefs, not at all trusting this God who his grandpa talked about. In fact, acting out just to distance himself further from those beliefs so that folks in the community would see that he was not like his family, he wasn’t crazy, odd, or different. No, he was just like everyone else. He fit in even though he rest of his family did not.
Like everyone else around, he knew that God did not give freely, that extreme sacrifice was demanded but certainly not a guarantee of getting anything from God. That old tall tale his grandpa told about God providing an animal for him to sacrifice instead of his the dad Isaac….it was just that, a tall tale, a dream, a hallucination….but certainly not real.
So…perhaps, we can also imagine that Jacob might not be as predisposed to accepting the alleged promises of God as told to him by his grandpa. Perhaps he didn’t care to see his family name continue down this crazy path. Perhaps, he wanted to redeem his family, make a better name for himself in the community. And every good intention is behind this…probably why the Bible describes Jacob as perfect and upright (tam) despite how callous and manipulative he looks to us when we read the story today. Jacob was doing exactly what his culture and society would expect him to do for his family….get them away from this crazy God of grace talk and back on track like everyone else.
So Jacob takes the family blessing, the birthright and seemingly sets out to steer his family in a different, more socially and culturally acceptable direction.
But then God appears to Jacob in a vision – there’s the ladder stretching from earth to heaven and there’s God’s promises – to give him land and generations of children and blessings. Most especially there is the promise that God will be with him wherever he goes and bring him back no matter what happens to fulfill the blessing God promised!
Imagine what Jacob must have been thinking given his family history:
“Now it’s happening to me….I’m going crazy too! I cannot deny what just happened. But I can’t accept it either! I’ve worked so hard to restore my family name…to get our life back in the good graces of the community. ..”
So Jacob takes a middle road. He neither accepts this unconditional blessing at face value nor does he run from it. He simply does what any reasonable person would do:
Okay, God, I’ll trust you if you prove it to me. Take care of me, provide for me, make peace in my family despite what I have stolen and if you do all that God, then I’ll accept you as my God. Heck, I’ll even give to you a tenth of everything I have.
It’s not receiving God’s grace. It’s an “If…Then…” response. It’s a “prove it to me” response.
God offers Grace. Jacob responds with conditions.
But the story does not end here. Fast forward twenty-some years. Jacob returns home with Leah, Rachel and his family a changed man. God did exactly what God promised to Jacob without conditions. And God’s promises have an effect upon Jacob. And all we have to do to see that effect is to read the pray Jacob offers when he returns home, afraid of Esau not knowing that Esau is about to offer him an act of grace that is grate than all his sins. Jacob’s prayer found in Genesis 32:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” (Genesis 32:9-12)
There is no If…Then… in this prayer. There is acceptance. There is recognition of grace and love and faithfulness. There is humility and acknowledgement of unworthiness. And there is trust in God’s promises.
God’s gracious promises and God’s faithfulness in fulfilling those promises transforms Jacob from a rebellious, unbelieving youth who tries to steer his family back to normalcy into a man who accepts God’s grace, founds a nation, and realizes his Grandpa was right and finally on his deathbed, claims the God of crazy old Abe and Isaac as his God, “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” (Genesis 48:15)
Friends, we all struggle to accept God’s unconditional grace. We rebel and try to put conditions on God’s Grace so that we can say clearly who is right and who is wrong, who believes and who does not, who is living Godly and who is not, who gets in Heaven and who does not, who is Christian and who is not.
But God doesn’t work that way. Thousands of years ago God spoke to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to show the world who God really is – a God who loves unconditionally, who provides, who gives without taking, who is present without sacrifices, a God who is good. And we, like Jacob, are prone to rebelling against such an unconditional, benevolent, inclusive and loving God.
People all around us are right now proclaiming a God who is full or wrath and will send you to a torturous hell if you do x, y or z rather than the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob who promises to be with us, to save us, to redeem us, to be present with us, to make something of us, and to do good in our lives without conditions no matter how much we rebel. The God of crazy old grandpa Abe, the God of Isaac and Jacob is radical and hard to believe and accept in a world based on conditions and contracts and if…then… ways of being.
But the good news is that God’s promises remain despite our lack of faith and trust, despite our actions. And God’s promises will change us. They will save us just like they saved Jacob. God’s promises will win in the end until we all proclaim that God is our God and has been our shepherd all our lives.”
Let it be so. amen.