Let’s take a stroll through the Bible looking at the families we find there. Let us listen for tone. I fear at times the church has lost its pitch. I fear we come at the world with less than the gracious tone of a God who loves sinners.
The Bible begins with God speaking humanity into existence. Male and female God created us, in the image of God, God created us. Then Our Creator looks at all creation and says “It is very good.”
In the second Chapter of Genesis we find a second creation story. Here, God takes a lump of clay and shapes it into a human being. God breathes into the clay nostrils the very spirit of God; and that clay becomes a living being. God plants a garden full of beautiful trees and luscious fruits and vegetables. God gives Adam only one rule- “do not eat from the tree of moral knowledge.” When God finishes planting the Garden, God looks around and says “it is not good for Adam to be alone.” To solve Adam’s aloneness God parades all the animals before Adam. Adam names the animals but finds no suitable colleague. The Lord causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep and God shapes Eve from the center of Adam’s being. Adam awakes, sees Eve, and exclaims “At last Lord, this is the one.” The chapter ends proclaiming, “the husband and wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
So here is the world’s first family. Adam and Eve are hanging out in a perfect garden, chatting directly with God and needing to keep only one rule. It’s all inclusive. Labor comes later after sin. No ticks, thorns, chiggers, poison ivy, mosquitos or horse flies allowed. God walks and chats with them. Adam and Eve inherit no hang ups, no fears, no worries and no shame. How will our first family handle Paradise?
They break the only rule. They sin. They blow it for the whole world! They take the whole world down with them! (Jeff Harrison)
They become wise.
They become ashamed.
They hide from God.
They create blame and animosity. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the talking serpent.
They add thorns, pain, work, blame and shame to Paradise.
Now Adam and Eve will have two children-Cain and Able.
What about these first siblings? Cain grows jealous and kills his brother Able.
Let’s jump past Noah and the Tower of Babel to the more historically traceable parts of the Text. As Children of Abraham let us look to the defining Old Testament Family! A family Jesus calls out as special, quoting God’s Word to Moses “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Matthew 22:32)
Abraham is the founding ancestor of the Judeo- Christian- and indeed the Islamic faith. Abraham is the first Monotheist! Abraham and Sarah hold deep faith and answer God’s call moving to an unseen land. Abraham and Sarah remain childless without an heir. Sarah says to Abraham, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; so I shall obtain children by her.” Slaves held no rights even to their own children. Ponder that if you doubt that we have made some moral progress. So Abraham and Hagar, the Egyptian hand-maiden, welcome their child Ishmael. Sarah who conceived the plan treats Abraham’s biological son and her legal child harshly. Finally Sarah and Abraham convinced a biological child- Isaac. Such a lovely name Isaac or “God has brought me laughter.” Does our story end with a great happy Brady Bunch ending right? No, Genesis 21 tells us that “when Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian and Abraham playing with her son Isaac, Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son.’ ” Abraham shuns his own son, abandoning Ishmael and Hager to the Wilderness. What lessons did Father Abraham offer his son Ishmael? We hear of Ishmael in Genesis 25 for Ishmael’s clan “lived in hostility toward all the tribes.” Abraham births a family cycle filled with dysfunctionality. The parents’ sins are born into the lives of their children and grandchildren.
When religious folks cast a judging eye on the world and speak of getting back to the Biblical Family values, do they remember these stories of strife, sin, jealousy, heartache, and brokenness?
Let’s examine the next generation of our Biblical Family tree. Sarah’s son Isaac grows up and marries Rebecca. Isaac and Rebecca have twin sons Jacob and Esau. Listen for the pathos of Genesis 25:28. “Isaac loved Esau, because he loved hunting trips; but Rebekah loved Jacob (who loved to cook and garden).” Selfish parenting and uneven love birth heartache into Jacob and Esau. Abraham gave un-even love to Isaac who shared it with his sons, perpetuating a dysfunctional family system.
How does a mom loving Jacob and a Dad loving Esau influence the twins?
Jacob steals his brother’s birthright. With Rebecca’s active assistance, Jacob deceives his dying father in order to change Isaac’s Will. When the time of grieving for Isaac nears its end, Esau announces plans to hunt down his lying brother. Jacob flees for his life, carrying a backpack and nothing else. His lifelong scheming yields nothing. Rebecca’s plans implode, with the son she loved fleeing for his life. Sarah spends the rest of her life with Esau.
Consider the third generation of the story of God with Abraham, Isaac and now Jacob! Jacob flees to a corrupt Uncle. Uncle Laban makes Jacob work for seven years before Jacob can marry his one true love the lovely Racheal. But Uncle Laban pulls a wedding night switch and tricks Jacob into marrying Leah. After a week, Laban allows Jacob to marry Racheal for another 7 years of labor. Jacob perpetuates the dysfunctional un-even love and fails to love Leah. Leah names their first son “my misery” saying “Surely my husband will love me now?” The two sisters launch a war for affection with a birthing race. At one point Racheal names her handmaiden’s child “my struggle” saying “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” The cycle of brokenness continues.
One of the 12 children born in Leah and Rachael’s Baby Battles is Joseph. How will the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob turn out? Well, Joseph’s dad Jacob will give him a special coat and special treatment. Joseph’s brothers beat up the well-heeled “dreamer,” throw him down a well and sell him into Egyptian slavery. They construct an elaborate lie of their brother being killed by a wild animal and share it with their grief struck father. They will live that secret lie for decades.
Now Jesus and the Rabbis may look more to Moses and the prophets but the founding families of the Bible are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! In several parables Jesus identifies Abraham as Heaven’s gatekeeper or front desk operator. The name Israel is the new name God gave Jacob after wrestling with “the Trickster” all night! These families are the Old Testament heroes, not the heels! These founding families make up the Great Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11.
Why offer this laundry list of multigenerational family dysfunctionality?
First, maybe this remembering offers hope for your struggling family. If God can bring life, love and faith into these messed up clans, God can heal your family too. The Bible does not paint any sort of 1950’s Father Knows Best model. The Bible is gritty, raw, and real. The Bible is filled with less than perfect people. The Bible is a story of sinful folks “striving.” Israel means to strive!
Second, maybe this dysfunctional Biblical laundry list speaks of our need for grace. We do not just need to receive grace as Christians but to offer it to others. Perhaps, the Bible calls us to have a more expansive, inclusive and welcoming notion of family. Perhaps Our Bible’s own dysfunctional family history might serve us a dish of humble pie. Have we forgotten that Jesus said “blessed are the humble, the meek, the merciful, mournful and the peacemakers… these are the children of God”? Our Biblical heritage reminds us of our tangled and broken roots. Perhaps considering these founding Bible families might remind us to get our own stuff in order before trying to get the log of the world’s eye. In the February 14, 2014 of Christianity Today entitled “Are Evangelicals Bad for Marriage” researchers at Baylor point out that evangelical Christians lead the nation in divorce! It is more complicated than that. The article quotes Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, “Lukewarm Christianity is a disaster for family life, but People who regularly attend church or synagogue are 35 percent less likely to divorce.” Friends, ponder your people. Ponder the brokenness of the first families of our faith! Do we think we are more faithful than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Our Biblical story is all about God’s grace floating some pretty messed up families. If we remember our roots and our evangelical blind-spots we might offer a little more grace, love and welcome to the hurting families in our world.
Seeing our own history we might offer compassion, love and welcome.
We might ask, why does the church continue to serve up judgement, when this is our record?
We might offer an expanded notion of who is welcome.
We might see that family is a place of love more than biology or legal arrangement.
Truly, I hope the reason I shared this dysfunctional family record is so that we might know that God longs to wade into the messy muck of our families.
So let us wade into these muddy murky sin sick family pools and revisit the Biblical family not focused on the mess we people can make but God’s presence and response to our sinfulness! Let us consider where God is at work.
So Adam and Eve ruin it for the whole world. They lose Paradise for us. They start the blame game. And yet God comes, calling for them in the cool of the evening. The Creator calls them from their hiding. As Adam and Eve confess their naked shame, God offers a sort of first sacrifice using skins to make clothing for Adam and Eve. The first family breaks the rules but God never breaks the relationship. God will continue to seek to save and heal us all the way to Jesus and to today.
When Cain murders his brother, God confronts the murderer “your brother’s blood cries out from the ground” and passes judgement. Cain protests God’s sentence (which was not a death sentence) and God tattoos Cain’s forehead to somehow protect the now wandering murderer. God offers shelter to one who commits fratricide! That is grace. God loved his murdered child and his child who murdered.
When Abraham and Sarah fail to believe God might give them the promised child, God makes Abraham laugh and Sarah laugh. “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at ninety?” They will name their biological heir Isaac or “laughter”.
When Abraham abandons his firstborn son Ishmael into the wilderness, God sends an angel. Hagar had laid down to die of dehydration but the angel said: “Do not fear; God has heard the boy’s voice and plight. Get up, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation.” God lead them to a well in the desert!
When Jacob, a rascal, finally comes home with four wives, 12 children and years on the run he must face his brother. Jacob knows that he stole, lied, tricked, schemed, and deceived his own father on his deathbed. Jacob wrestles all night with God and gets a new name, Israel; “one who strives with God and people.” Terrified Jacob divides his family into two camps so that one might run away when Esau arrives with his 400 soldiers. The day looms. Jacob the lying scheming thief limps into the meeting his warrior brother, but God shows up in the face of Esau. “Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept.” And Jacob feeling Esau’s forgiveness says to his brother through tears “to see your face is for me like seeing the face of God—you have received me so kindly” (Genesis 33). Twelve chapters preceding chapters may simply set up that moment of grace, which is the message of a God who gives us new names. May we be Israel: “we who strive with God”!
Or consider Joseph: mocked, beaten, tossed in a well, sold into slavery, and considered dead by his brothers who lived with a lie long enough to not forget that Joseph may live. These 10 evil-doing brothers will have a judgement day. Joseph will rise from slavery to become the Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, the day to day Pharaoh, so Pharaoh can play on the Mediterranean beaches! A famine in Israel sends the 10 brothers to the hidden Joseph for food. Joseph can take revenge or stand up for justice. Instead he offers grace and love falling apart with tears before his stunned brothers saying: “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. …it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
This is the image I see in the Bible: one of forgiveness and an unfolding of love. It is a message of grace.
It is an expanding sense of family, not a narrowing. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not the heroes, but followers of a loving, forgiving, welcoming and grace-filled God. God is welcoming and expansive.
Let us remember that Jesus’ family was not traditional. Hear Matthew 1:18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
Now Jesus’ opponents will mock Christ in John 8, questioning his ancestry. These extremely religious folks will taunt Christ saying “you are a Samaritan” (that was a multicultural taboo). They will infer Jesus was born out of wedlock saying “we are not illegitimate.”
God uses a family God peppered with rumors, innuendo and questions about its legitimacy to save the world!
There are other great non-traditional Bible families. John 11 “Lazarus of Bethany, Mary and her sister Martha. …. Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Jesus was single.
Paul credits Timothy’s faith back to his grandmother Lois and mother Eunice.
Or consider this passage from Ruth that couples share at weddings
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Now that was spoken between two widowed women… a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law!
Perhaps we Christians might . Pause a bit, ponder where we come from. We might do well to remember that we are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are descendants of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachael, Bilhah and Zilpah. We might extend the Grace that seems to flow to all the families in the Bible. Perhaps we might not worry about pushing people away from God’s Table but realizing that if God has drawn strangers close to us, then perhaps God is calling us to love them and extend hospitality, love, welcome and grace to them.
Perhaps we need to take to heart the words of the Psalmist in 68:5-6
Father of Orphans and Protector of Widows- this is God, who dwells in holiness. God places the lonely in families!
Do we have an expansive sense of Family?
Do we welcome others into our family?
Do we extend the grace and forgiveness God has offered to us to others?
I may be wrong friends, but perhaps we should not worry so much about who is in or out of our family, or what is legitimate or illegitimate. Maybe we should remember that Jesus is the Judge. Perhaps we simply treat each other as family all packed into an unreliable mini-van chugging through a wilderness. Perhaps we realize we are all children or God, with logs at times obscuring our vision. It seems to me that is the Biblical witness- grace, forgiveness, welcome, and love.
The Bible story is not one of perfect little families. NO, it is messy and not as traditional as some folks would have you believe. We are called children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Our story is one of God as Father, loving all us evil children. It is the story of Christ, our brother, crucified and forgiving us from the cross. Our story is one of the Holy Spirit wrestling with us all night, and meeting us in the unexpected love of a brother the next day. Oh, let us be children, who strive after God and like our heavenly Father offer our welcome, grace, love and forgiveness to our hurting siblings.
Let us sing of the wondrous love of Jesus. Let us sing of grace greater than our sin. Let us sing to the world a song of God’s amazing love that finds us. Let us offer a gracious song of welcome and love. Let remember that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not the heroes and neither are we. Let us humble make room for the widow, the stranger and the fatherless and by so doing become the family of God. Let us remember, The Hero of the Bible is the Great Gracious, Welcoming, Seeking, Healing, Comforting, Restoring, Redeeming- God of Love. Amen.