INTRODUCTION: Last week’s story showed us God selecting a single individual, and an unexceptional one at that (an underdog, really), as a place to begin his work to turn the world around and to help human beings to become what they can be. That man was Abraham, accompanied by his wife Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac. He was the son that God had long promised them. But, remember, Abraham had another son who was before Isaac. The older son’s name was Ishmael. It is nice and confusing to have two names that start with the letter I. It seems to cause people trouble. To this day my son, Isaiah, frequently gets called Isaac; even by people he knows. Who knew that the letter-I would be just a stumbling block?
So Abraham had two sons, Ishamael and Isaac. And Ishmael was the older of the two. Ishmael had every legal right to inherit at least a part of his father’s estate. And yet, when it came time to divy up the goods the split wasn’t 50/50 or 60/40 or even 70/30. The numbers were nearer to 100/0. Isaac got it all. This is the first in a series of similar situations in which the possible paths diverged and God always took one or the other; and never, both. And usually God chose the underdog. God chose the younger, when we might expect the elder to be chosen.
There is a long history of stories that reflect on what it means to be chosen. And excellent representative of this is the children’s story, ‘Tiki-Tiki-Tembo’. Chosenness, this particular story suggests, is sometimes a dubious honor.
Chosenness likewise has an ambiguous character in scripture. It’s not nearly so simple as being picked as the favorite. Ultimately the Chosen One was nailed to a cross. There is a Jewish legend that God once asked all of the other nations if they would like to be his chosen people. And they all declined because they had a pretty good idea of what chosenness might involve and didn’t want the burden.
Isaac and Ishmael are counterposed to one another, as noted above. But the distinction between the two is complicated and confused by the fact that they did have different mothers. Much easier an example for the young child is provided by the depiction of Jacob and Esau because Jacob and Esau are not only sons of the same mother, but–twins! They were born only seconds apart. You should hardly be able to tell them apart. And yet, the two brothers are shown to be entirely distinct. And so, God is shown to go down only one road at a time. God keeps on task. He doesn’t go down side alley-ways.
And so, after reviewing the story covered last week and reviewing the characters of Abraham and Isaac, we turn to the next two generations.
God had promised Abraham a big family. To make a big impact in this great, big, wide world would require a lot of hands pitching in; a lot of hearts knitted together in ties of love and kinship.
So far there was only Isaac, Abraham’s one and only son…other than the other one. Abe did have another son. But he had been sent away from home years before with his mother so as not to interfere with Isaac’s taking over his father’s estate when it came time.
Abraham’s behavior toward his son, Ishmael (that is the older son’s name), doesn’t always impress us. We don’t have to appreciate the choices certain people make. They may be good decisions and they may be bad decisions. These stories from the bible are about real people. And if there is one thing that we know about people it is that they make mistakes.
In any case, Ishmael was not going to be the favored son. Isaac was.
When Isaac got old enough to get married it was up to Abraham to find for his son a suitable wife. (Abraham liked to be in control of things) The young girls around where they lived weren’t good enough for Isaac. So Abraham went on a search and found the perfect bride for his son. Her name was Rebekkah.
So Isaac and Rebekkah were wed. And after they had been married a while God blessed this couple with a child. Rebekkah was going to have a baby. Did I say, a baby? Oh no, I’m sorry–two. Rebekkah was expecting twins. And, true to her expectations, she had two baby boys; one born right after the other. But even from the get go the boys looked nothing alike. In fact, everything about them was different it seems. One was an outdoorsy guy. The other was more of a home-body.
When the boys had gotten older and now were practically grown men, and when there father, Isaac was starting to slip in his advanced years, it was clear that it was time for one of the brothers to be designated as the primary heir of their father.
You’re probably thinking, ‘couldn’t they split everything even…right down the middle?’
Well…some things you can split and some things you can’t. Some things, if you try to split them, you end up killing or destroying them. Try splitting an m&m. It doesn’t work too good. Or when you come to a fork in the road, try going both ways. You can’t do it. You have to choose. One of the brothers had to be chosen; that his children and grandchildren would be the family through which God performed his work. Ultimately God wanted to help all human beings to get back on the right track. But God had to start small.
So one day the father, Isaac, now old and quite blind, had to pass on to one of his sons the promise that his family would be the path that God should take. Knowing that this day was coming, the younger son, Jacob, devised a trick to get the gift that he fully expected that his father would give to his slightly older, twin brother, Esau. Because his father was blind, Jacob figured, at the suggestion of his mother, Rebekkah, that if he dressed up like his older brother, in his clothes, and pretended to be Esau, that their blind father might mistakenly give the promise to him. Jacob’s trick worked. It wasn’t the most honorable way to behave. But God went along with it anyway, and allowed Isaac to pass the promise on to Jacob.
Esau, when he found out, was furious of course. Esau had a bad temper.
And Jacob, fearing for his life; fearing his brother’s wrath; ran away from home–once again, at his mother’s suggestion. For many years the two brothers lived apart, far away from one another. Eventually they would get back together and make peace with one another. But it took a long time for that storm to blow over.
Life away from home was not easy for Jacob. He was taken advantage of; cheated by a sneaky and greedy relative, his Uncle Laban. But Jacob hung in there and worked hard. He had 12 sons born to him, each of whom would eventually give his name to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Who is Israel? Let me explain.
You see, one day when Jacob decided that it was finally time to leave his sneaky Uncle Laban’s house and to return home and finally confront his brother Esau, Jacob took his growing family and his 12 sons and set off for the land where he was born. On the way Jacob met a stranger late one night, when he was all alone. And Jacob got into a wrestling match with this character in the deep, dark night in which Jacob could not see with whom he was struggling. Towards morning, after Jacob had been wounded but wouldn’t let go, like a dog clamped onto somebody’s leg, Jacob begged his opponent to say a good word to him. “Tell me that things will turn out alright for me because I am afraid of meeting my brother and finding that he is still mad. And I have had such a hard time of it up to now, living out on the road. I’m tired. And I have had to fight so hard against so many things.”
At that moment, as the sun was coming up, the stranger said, “I will show you that you will do well for yourself and that you will be okay. And to demonstrate to you that such is the case I am going to rename you. Up until now your name has been, Jacob.” (The name Jacob means, in their language, something like–the Trickster–the guy who hangs on to someone else’s heels or, as we would say, onto someone else’s coattails. All of his life Jacob had been number 2, trailing behind someone else.) “Now,” the stranger said, “your name will be Israel, for you have wrestled with other human beings and with God.” (Israel means–one who struggles with and conquers God)
And that is how all of the people who came to be descended from Jacob; his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren and so on; came to be known as the Israelites. We will be talking a lot about the Israelites–the people…the family, really…through whom and with whom and sometimes against whom God worked in order to fix the world by fixing the people who live in it. To be God’s chosen people would prove to be a mighty struggle for the people of Israel. Their lives and their stories had a lot of ups and downs, just like their forefather, Jacob, had lots of struggles. His worst struggle yet we’re going to hear about next time. It’s a father’s worst struggle when he sees his children not getting along with each other. And we will find out how his children manage to get through the difficulty of fighting, which sometimes happens even amongst brothers.
The choosing of Jacob and his being given a new name has the most obvious liturgical and catechetical connection with the rite of holy baptism. When we are baptized into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, it signals not just a name change but an alteration of our identity–an indication of what we can become (even though we are not nearly there yet). In the fourth question under the fourth chief part of the catechism the question is asked: ‘what does such baptizing with water indicate?’ Answer: ‘It (baptism) indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Note the use of the adverb–daily. Like Jacob we daily struggle. We are in for the fight of our life and the fight goes on every day. Who will we be? Which identity will prevail; the old, sneaky trickster, who looks out first and foremost for himself and for his own best interests; or the new man, who lives the way a human being ought to live; loving and generous to all? The practice of confession and absolution, as exhibited in the preparation for the Divine Service, dramatizes this struggle. We acknowledge our repeated failings and struggles, and we turn to God to hear again and to be strengthened by the promise that He sees better things in store for us at the end of the fight. God reminds us, through the voice of the pastor, that we are his children still, in spite of our shortcomings. The absolution–the pronounced forgiveness–closes with the reapplication of our new names, the reminder of who we really are, which is ultimately and most truly grounded not in who or what we have been but in who and what we will be. The pastor says, as the voice of Jesus, “I forgive you all of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Those are baptism words!)