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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

December 2, 2018, First Sunday of Advent

The Lord Will Provide

Genesis 22:1-14; John 1:43-51

            “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  I wonder what Nathanael might have said years later, as he read John’s account of it for the first time.  Do you think he winced?  “Ouch.  I really said that just before meeting Jesus.  ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”

            Maybe you’ll say the same thing sometime.  Maybe the tone will be different, but the words will be the same, just before you meet Jesus again: “Can anything good come out of this?” If you do, I suspect you’ll hear the Spirit whisper the same words that Nathanael heard: “Come and see.”

            There’s a lot to unpack, a lot that transpires between Jesus and Nathanael, who goes to the other extreme quickly: “You are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”  But Jesus offers a gentle rebuke.  “Woah.  All it took for you to confess that is for me to know you?”

            Anyone who has attended worship at First Presbyterian Church in the last sixteen years has been amazed that Todd Jones somehow remembers your name after one introduction, and not only your name, but the names of your children as well, and where they go to school.  It’s amazing.  I like to say that it’s his superpower.  It doesn’t, however, make him the King of Israel.  And Jesus lets Nathanael know that his expectations for the Savior are a bit low.  “You’ll see way more than that, son.  You’ll see angels traveling between heaven and earth.”

            The invitation whispered by the Spirit, the invitation to come and see, is to see a God who does greater things than we expect or ask for.  It’s an invitation that we not settle for less than the true and living God.  Annie Dillard quipped that “the mind wants to know all the world, and eternity, even God.  The mind’s sidekick, though, will settle for two eggs over easy.”  And Jesus chides Nathanael for settling.  Come and see the true and living God.

            Over the last year of ministry, one lesson has solidified for me as a pastor: you have to decide what kind of story you think that God is writing in your life.  What kind of story you think you’re living drives how you act within the story.  There are lots of stories told in the world.  There are love stories: lots of love stories in songs and books and movies.  Now, I’ll admit that it can be a great escape to sit on the beach and read Nicolas Sparks for hours.  But I’ve decided that God is not writing a love story of our lives.  If you think that the goal of your life is finding true love, you may have some romance, but you won’t find the true and living God.

            There are adventure tales, lots of tales of hiking and climbing and diving.  It can be a thrilling antidote to the humdrum of getting up and showering and shaving for the umpteenth time, and going to work and coming home and pouring a drink.  But I’ve decided that God is not writing an adventure tale in our lives.  If you think that your life is an adventure, you will have some thrills, but you won’t find the true and living God.

            Over the last year of ministry, I’ve been re-convinced that God is writing, in each of our lives, a redemption story.  Yes, there are chapters of love.  There are chapters of adventure.  But we’re aiming too low if we settle for those things.  The mind wants to know God.  God forbid that we settle for two eggs over easy, or a better love life.

            That is what lay at the heart of God’s horrible test of Abraham.  “Abraham, what God are you worshiping?”  It’s the worst story in the Bible.  If you gave people the chance to vote on what one story they would cut from the Bible, I bet Genesis 22 would win, in a landslide.  Ellen Davis asks, “If you put this story just 22 chapters into the Bible, who is going to read the rest?”  But on further review, she says, “I have completely missed the point.  The point is not to make people want to believe in Abraham’s God – who is, of course, also Jesus’ God and father.  Rather, this harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything they have ever received at God’s hand” (The Christian Century, 10-26-16).

            Every good story has its hard parts, its scary parts.  The Heidelberg Catechism says that our only comfort in life and death is knowing that we belong to God, and that God protects us so well that not a hair can fall from our heads without his allowing it, and even that everything that happens in our lives must fit his purpose for our salvation.  Everything.  Not planned by God, necessarily.  But everything must fit God’s purpose for our salvation.  The story God is writing of your life is a redemption story.  Every low and every high; every failing and every success; every blessing and every curse.  Can anything good come out of this?  Come and see.  See the heavens opened and angels traveling between heaven and earth.

            What God are we worshiping?  Is it the God who gives us our heart’s desire?  Is it the God who protects our children?  Is it the God who provides for us a new love, a great job, financial security?  Well, let’s try a little thought experiment, and turn the tables for a moment.

            I wouldn’t be surprised, if at some point in your life, you looked in the mirror and asked yourself, “What do I mean to the people in my life?”

            Suppose you’re a husband and father.  I wouldn’t be shocked if, maybe once in your life, you’ve felt unappreciated, maybe taken for granted.  Maybe you’ve wondered, “Am I just an ATM?”

            Suppose you’re a wife and mother.  Maybe you’ve felt forgotten, as if people assume that you are there to fulfill their needs.  You might have asked yourself, “Am I just a personal Uber driver, or an unpaid household manager?”

            Maybe you’re a young person who has the nagging feeling that you’re on this earth so that your parents can humblebrag about you at their parties.  Are you just a trophy?  Maybe you’re a faithful employee who gives fully of yourself, only to be unappreciated and mostly ignored by those for whom you work.  Maybe you aged and slowed down and wonder what happened to all those people in your life who used to be so important.

            What do we mean to the people in our life?  Are they taking us for granted?  Are we taking them for granted?        

            Now let’s turn the tables back.  What God are we worshiping?  Is it the God who gives us our heart’s desire?  Who protects our children?  Who provides for us a new love, a great job, financial security?  Is it the true and living God, or an idol of our own making?

            This is what lies at the heart of God’s horrible test of Abraham.  It’s hard; it’s scary.  There’s no getting around it, no explaining it away.  God needs to know: Abraham, do you really trust me?  God had reason to wonder, you know.  If you recall Abraham’s journey, he had a few prior tests that he bombed.  There were those times when Abraham pretended that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife, because he was afraid that the Pharaoh might get rid of him in order to have Sarah.  So Abraham just handed her over to the Pharaoh, to be one of his concubines!  If Abraham’s story teaches us anything, it’s that faith is a long and winding road, with lots of tests along the way; and we fail our share.  The redemption story that God is writing of your life is not brief, like a blog post; it’s epic.  It has chapters, many of them.  And some end with you wondering if tomorrow will come.  And the way that Genesis tells it, God needs to know: do you trust me, or are you taking me for granted?  Are you using me, or are you letting me use you?

            Eugene Peterson says that the only way for your faith to mature is through sacrifice.  The only way.  So you may as well remember this episode in Abraham’s life and let it be a metaphor for yours: sometimes, in some places, God is going to ask you to put something precious on the altar and step back.  God is going to ask you to face a circumstance in life that looks like God is taking away something precious, and invite you to step back, trusting God and God alone.  It may be your marriage.  It may be your job.  It may be your child, your beloved child.  What God are you worshiping?

            Anne and I were watching This is Us on Tuesday, and we were following the story of Beth and Randall.  Randall is running for city council.  Beth had agreed to support him, and Randall agreed, if she ever changed her mind, that he would drop out.  So, Randall brings the house down at a debate against the incumbent.  He makes an impassioned plea for their support and makes an impassioned promise that he will work for them.  But after the debate, his campaign manager says, “We got the poll results.  You’re toast.  You have no chance.  You’re too far behind.”  And they go home to discover that their daughters’ lives are spinning out of control.  And Beth says, “I need you to quit now.  You can’t win, and our daughters need us.”  But Randall says, “I can’t quit now.  I just made promises to them.”

            That is what sacrifice feels like.  It feels … wrong.  How could Randall put his campaign on the altar and step back?  How could you take these gifts in your life and put them on the altar, allowing God to do with them what he will?  But that’s the thing: that’s the only way that faith matures.  God tests us.  God needs to know: are you using me, or are you letting me use you?

            Jon Levenson, an Old Testament scholar, says “Much early Christianity is … best understood as [commentary] on the what the Bible says about Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham, and about Isaiah’s suffering servant, who went to the slaughter without protest, and about another miraculous son, the future messianic king whom the people of Israel awaited….” Jesus is the one whom everyone is waiting for.  Philip said to Nathanael, “We have found him.”  John the Baptist called him the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  He is the main character in this redemption story that God is writing.  And he shows us, in his life, what it means to really trust God, instead of using God.  He refuses to turn stones into bread, or to throw himself off the temple, or to take a shortcut to kingship.  He trusts God, and lays down his life.  He is where heaven and earth meet.  He is the One the angels sing about, the One to whom they point.

            All this Advent, Todd will be preaching angel stories: an angel appears to Zechariah and promises a son to his wife in her old age.  Zechariah the skeptic replies, “How will I know this?”  And for his cynicism, the angel gives him a case of laryngitis.  Then an angel appears to Mary and promises a son, though she has no husband.  And Mary offers a better reply: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”  Do those words sound familiar?  “God tested Abraham.  He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and he replied, “Here I am.’”  And again, “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’  And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’”  And a third time, “the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’  And he said, ‘Here I am.’  And the angel said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’”

            It’s the only way that faith matures.  It’s the only way that God will know.  It’s the only way to distinguish between the true God and little idols that we craft out of things of this world.  Sacrifice.  It’s hard.  It’s scary.

            I wonder what Abraham would have said, years later, after that journey up Mount Moriah.  Jewish legend has it that when he went home and told Sarah, she screamed six times, and dropped dead!  I wouldn’t be surprised.  But my hunch is that Abraham would repeat what he said to his son, his beloved son Isaac that day.  “The Lord will provide.”  It’s hard.  It’s scary.  But I know it’s true.  I know you can trust God.  The Lord will provide.

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