Sunday, June 19, 2016

The God of Your Father: Sermon on Genesis 26 for Father's Day

Abimelech, Ahuzzath, Phicol, Gerar, Esek, Sitnah, Gerar, Shibah – names like those can so easily flow together into one big, messy jumble. It's hard to follow what's going on. And what a strange story to share for Father's Day. 

But actually, I'd like to suggest that this chapter of the Bible – Genesis 26 – is all about negotiating the legacies of our fathers. What we see here is Isaac navigating the complexities of dealing with what's left behind when his father is done. Three chapters earlier, Isaac's mother Sarah passed away (Genesis 23:2). Two chapters earlier, Isaac's father helped to arrange his marriage to Rebekah (Genesis 24:27). And in the last chapter before this one, Isaac's father Abraham finally passed away (Genesis 25:8) – an event that at last, if only briefly, united Isaac with his notorious half-brother Ishmael (Genesis 25:9), whose twelve princely sons are then recorded (Genesis 25:13-16). Isaac, meanwhile, had just two sons, Jacob and Esau, a pair of twins fated for conflict – conflict reflecting the favoritism Rebekah showed for Jacob and Isaac showed for Esau (Genesis 25:28).

And now we come to the present chapter. The first full chapter where Isaac has no living parents. They're gone. From dust they came, and now to dust they've returned. Isaac is left to stand on his own two feet now. He's the head of the household. He's the chief of the clan. He's in charge of his own life – not his mom, not his dad. Because they're gone – or are they? Because for someone absent from the narrative, Abraham's name sure keeps cropping up over and over again in this chapter. That's why I'd like to suggest that this chapter is all about figuring out what to do with a father's legacy. And there are a few things Isaac has inherited from his father, each dealt with in turn.

First, Isaac has inherited his father's perks. Let's start exploring what the story says. The chapter opens by announcing that a famine has struck the land, making life difficult there. There's no food bank. There are no grocery stores. Isaac raises livestock and farms. That's where he gets food for his body and his family and all the people in his service, his employ. If there's a famine, that means things aren't growing, and his flock ain't doing so hot either. Times are tough. But notice the words we hear to describe all this: “Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham” (Genesis 26:1). We're meant to remember that Abraham was in this situation also. During tough times before, Isaac could lean on his father. His father was in charge. Now, Isaac has to figure out what to do – and that's not always easy.

At the same time, Isaac is in a parallel situation. Isaac is repeating scenes from his father's life (cf. Genesis 12:10). Isaac stays for a while in Gerar with the Philistine king Abimelech. The whole scene is a bit odd, since the people we know as the Philistines didn't show up in the land for a couple hundred years. Moses is foreshadowing. The name 'Abimelech' means “my father is king,” and it was a frequent throne-name taken among Canaanites and even Israelites during the days of the judges – Gideon's son Abimelech proclaims himself king of Israel (Judges 9:6), which does not end well (Judges 9:53-55). And the name 'Gerar' means “lodging-place,” best as we can tell, and that's exactly how Isaac means to use it: it's a hotel on his journey out of this dried-up land. Abraham stayed there six chapters ago and met the king then – also called Abimelech (Genesis 20:3).

Isaac's learning from what his father did. On the move? Take a break at Gerar. Famine in the land? Plan for Egypt. That's what Abraham did. But here in this story, God steps in. God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, to stick with the promised land. And God repeats a bunch of things he said to Abraham, and even tells Isaac, “I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:3-5).

Hear that? It has nothing to do with what Isaac has earned or merited on his own. It doesn't rest on Isaac's credit – his great faith, or his wonderful works, or his noble character. He's supposed to respond that way, but it doesn't depend on that. It's just because Abraham had a working faith – and God passes that credit on to Isaac, with all the perks and promises and privileges that come with it. And we see that Isaac responds. He doesn't go to Egypt, passes the rest of his life without seeing Egypt; he settles down in Gerar and never, for all his days, leaves the land God commanded him to settle (Genesis 26:6). He aims to make the best of his father's perks.

And you know, this is something we inherit from our fathers as well, perhaps. Now, in our congregation, we have a wide variety of experiences with fathers. Throughout history, there have been good fathers, bad fathers, in-between fathers, distant fathers, controlling fathers, inspiring fathers, you name it. But throughout most of history, one common theme was that a father would teach his son the family trade. A son inherited his father's vocation as the chief perk. Some of us here have followed our father's vocation. 

But all of us have inherited a big pile of DNA that helps set the baseline for who we are. That's about the sum total of what I got from my father. If I've got any intellectual gifts, a lot of that came to me through him. I'm far from the smartest person in my family – but that perk got passed on. And I suppose you could say I follow my father's vocation as a traveler of the world – he was always on trips, spent much of his time managing factories in Central America or visiting Italy with his church choir to sing for the pope. 

I'm not sure what you think of when you think of what got passed down to you – maybe the color of your hair, the shape of your face, your height; maybe a love for some hobby, a passion for some interest; maybe some skill; maybe wealth, maybe a good place in society, maybe a strong reputation.

Second, Isaac inherited his father's pitfalls. For all the later lionization of Abraham throughout the Bible as the father of the faithful, the ancestor of Israel, Genesis sure is honest about what a struggle it was for him to live in faith. He had his share of flaws – maybe even more than his share. One of those was a tendency to manipulate the situation with half-truths and trickery, trying to protect himself at everyone else's expense – all because he couldn't shake the thought that God needed his help to get things done. Abraham spent most of his life as a weakling in faith.

And Isaac internalized that side of him. Isaac inherited his father's pitfalls, problems, mistakes, dysfunctional behaviors. It's not just that Isaac learned from his father how to play favorites and mess up his children's lives – though there sure is that. Isaac also learned dysfunctional ways to cope with stress and fear. When Abraham faced famine, he went to Egypt and passed his wife off as available for the Pharoah's harem – and there were consequences (Genesis 12:11-17). Years later, Abraham went to Gerar and proved how little he'd learned, when he pulled the same trick on his generation's Abimelech (Genesis 20:2). For a guy whose vocation was to bless the nations, Abraham sure did have a penchant for trying to save his own hide and turn a profit by luring them into sin (Genesis 20:9). And now Isaac pulls the same stunt – lies that Rebekah is his sister, so that no one would kill him to get her (Genesis 26:7). Isaac might follow God's instructions on where to live, but he hasn't caught God's vision for how to live – not yet.

But it's a common story. People learn from their parents. A father's patterns of behavior, for good or for ill, get imprinted on his sons and daughters as being 'normal,' being inevitable. We internalize those lessons and, even without thinking about it or recognizing it, we repeat those behaviors – or we spend our lives reacting against them to the point of letting them control us by contrast. We obsess so much over the harm our fathers did that we define ourselves as their opposite, or we emulate our fathers as inevitable role-models, even in their errors, maybe even in the things they themselves wish we hadn't caught. That's Isaac's story, and I'd be willing to bet there are more than one or two of you for whom that hits home this morning.

Third, Isaac inherits his father's problems. After things take a nice turn in Isaac's life – he gets rich, he gets lots of resources, he gains influence and power – well, the locals get jealous (Genesis 26:12-14). And the dominant theme of the next scene is that the locals keep stealing the wells Isaac sends his men to dig. Now, wells were important – wells were vital – because in a desert land, you've got to have somewhere to get water. But time and again, Moses reminds us that, out of sheer spite, these locals had actually undug – filled up, stopped, clogged – the wells that Isaac's father Abraham dug (Genesis 26:15). Isaac had to repeat the work – he “dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he” – Isaac – “gave them the names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18).

Here's some background. For a time, Abraham and his clan stayed in the fields around Gerar. This is actually, in fact, where Isaac was born – this is his homecoming, in a way (Genesis 21:3). But then Abraham complains to Abimelech about a stolen well. Abimelech swears he knows nothing about it, so the two of them make a covenant, and that marks the well at Beersheba out as permanently Abraham's – never to be messed with or altered by Abimelech's people (Genesis 21:25-32). But when Abraham left, that covenant wasn't honored – not by the people, and apparently the king didn't enforce it. The people didn't even use the wells; they clogged them out of spite. So Isaac has to repeat the whole process. He has to dig more wells. He has to deal with the fighting, the conflict. He has to wonder each time, “Do I get to keep this one, or will they take it away too?”

In other words, Isaac inherits his father's network of broken relationships. And sometimes that's what we get left with as well, isn't it? We often inherit relationships, good or bad. People see our father in us, for good or ill; we project our fathers onto other people – again, for good or ill. We carry our father's baggage, in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. Or, we enjoy our father's prestige and station, in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us.

The truth is, there are many things we inherit from our fathers. Some are good, some... not quite so much, at times. It can be so overwhelming that sometimes, it's hard to really find room for ourselves – hard to see where we fit in as individuals, to stand on our own two feet and flourish in our own right. How do we do that? How do we both appreciate our father's legacy, stand in continuity with family tradition... and have room to flourish, grow, be ourselves, make our own commitments, act as ourselves and not extensions of our fathers? We need room. 

That's the lesson Isaac learns here. His father's network of broken relationships – broken, in this case, not through his father's fault – well, it makes life in the land very crowded. The locals quarrel with his people over one well – Isaac calls it Esek, “contention.” It happens again over another well – Isaac calls it Sitnah, “enmity.” He keeps having to move away. He's trying to find a place to be himself – not defining himself against his father, not rejecting his father, but to live out the Abrahamic promise without all of Abraham's leftover baggage piling up and toppling over on him.

And finally, he builds a well, and there's no quarrel. He calls it Rehoboth, “broad places,” and says, “For now the LORD has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land” (Genesis 26:22). That's all he wanted. He wanted room – room to be fruitful. Even “exceedingly fruitful,” as Isaac's father was supposed to be (Genesis 17:6). We all need that kind of room – room to be fruitful. 

There are many things in this life that crowd around us. There are many pressures that try to dictate the course of our lives and pressure us into simply following blindly and inevitably the path our father walked. And one of the tragic things in life is how many sons and daughters think they have to flee to Egypt to find that room. Isaac knows better. He wants room, but he won't stray from the promised land to find it. And neither should we. When Isaac finds room, finds a place broad enough for Isaac to be Isaac, then he can be refreshed by this well and be fruitful.

So in the end, Isaac ascends from Rehoboth to Beersheba – Beersheba, where Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech (Genesis 26:23). And here, Isaac realizes the fourth reality he's inherited from his father. He couldn't see this clearly until he found room. But it was true all along.  

Fourth and most important, Isaac inherits his father's God. The LORD appears to him that night and says, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham's sake” (Genesis 26:24).

If you can hear God say to you, “I am the God of your father,” do you realize how blessed you are? In the words of Abimelech, “You are now the blessed of the LORD (Genesis 26:29). When Isaac encounters the LORD as the God of his father, a God who is now his God also, a God who blesses him – that's when Isaac is really able to make peace with his neighbors. Isaac eats and drinks, enjoys fellowship, with Abimelech and his retinue. Isaac renews the covenant – makes a sworn pact of peace and good will – exchanges promises with them, and they with him. Never again is there a problem between Isaac and the Philistine herdsmen. Isaac lives out the rest of his life at peace with his neighbors, and finally is buried alongside his parents at Kiriath-arba.

Isaac doesn't rebel against his father's legacy. He embraces it and honors it. But he overcomes parts of it – the sin, the brokenness, the failures and missteps and dysfunctional behaviors and lapses of faith. Not entirely, alas but of course. But while Isaac isn't perfect, he does become somewhat of a success story – after he finds room, and after he builds his first altar to worship the God of his father. If the LORD was the God of your father, you can find the same thing. You, too, can be “the blessed of the LORD.” You can draw on a rich legacy of spiritual instruction and nourishment; you can find room to navigate your father's legacy, bringing it all before the LORD and letting him guide you in sifting it; and you can find peace and a healthy life. Thank God for fathers like that!

But maybe your father didn't teach you to know this God. Maybe the LORD wasn't the God of your father. Maybe your father had a different god – himself, his work, his wealth, his pleasure, or any of the good things we so incessantly insist on raising beyond their place. Maybe your father was like my fathersimply an absence from your life.  Maybe your father was like my grandfather – a totally godless man, an abusive drunk, a petty tyrant over his sad little kingdom. Or maybe your father was a decent man, even a virtuous man (after the virtue of this world), a man who taught you much... just not that. And maybe you're wondering what you can get out of a sermon titled, “The God of Your Father.”

In much of the world, it's hard for societies to make room for children to break away from their father's gods and meet the one true God. But it can be done – Abraham himself had to do it. And here's what the scriptures say. “If you are of Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29). That's right: if you belong to Christ, then you are a child of Abraham. Because the offspring off Abraham is “the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). “It is those of faith who are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).

Not all who physically descend from Abraham can really claim him as a father, because Abraham's real children are those who inherit the faith he matured into (Romans 9:7). Abraham is the father of the faithful – those who look to God as the one who can pull fullness out of emptiness, fruit off a barren branch, and life out of the grave (Romans 4:17). 

If you have that kind of faith, faith enough to believe that the crucified Jesus is by God's hand the living Lord – if you commit yourself so as to belong to Christ – then you can call Abraham your father. And in inheriting his faith, you inherit his God – and that's a good thing, because God adopts Abraham's family as his own through Jesus Christ, Abraham's true Seed. Praise be to the God of Abraham our father, for sending his Son to bring us home to our Father above. Amen.

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