Sunday, March 16, 2014

In the Middle

In the Middle
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 16, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 24: 52-60

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

52 When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the ground before the Lord. 53 And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. 54 Then he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they rose in the morning, he said, “Send me back to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the girl remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has made my journey successful; let me go that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “We will call the girl, and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah, and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will.” 59 So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
“May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.” [1]

Isaac and Rebekah has been a hard story to find something to add to it, to bring out of it, to say about it, because it is so basic. There really isn't much here. What happens is what has happened for so many years to so many people throughout countless generations. A Man and a Woman come together in marriage. In fact there isn't much about Isaac and Rebekah in the Bible at all. They are kinda place holders, there in the middle of the more in depth stories. They are basically just children of famous parents, and parents of famous children. Stuck in the middle between the fame. After chapters and chapters with Abraham, and before chapters with the infamous exploits of that trickster Jacob, we get very little about the life of this child of promise. His birth is so built up, but not much is given after that. After he survives the blood sacrifice scene, he grows up, gets married, interestingly to a girl from back in Ur his father's home. He sent one of the servants to go back there to find him a wife, the first example of the importance of family and avoiding intermarrying with the Canaanites. . . but other than that, in the story, as we read just now, she agrees to go to Isaac and becomes his wife, this woman, Rebekah. she decides to go, and the rest is untold history, until they have their children. Yeah not much happens, except we get introduced to some of the players in the next generation. We meet Laban, Rebekah's brother, who will prove important in Jacob's adventures in the weeks to come, but again it's all people who will be important later. . . not now. . . now we are simply in the middle times, between generations, the peaceful, uneventful time within the cycle of it all.
So that got me thinking about one of the interesting ideas about the Bible and history in general in a free society. There seems to be a cycle within the generations, that has repeated and repeated again and again throughout history, and it is important because we seem to be a part of that cycle, and we can look at where we as 2014 Americans fit within the cycle, whether we like Isaac and Rebekah are living in those middle times, or whether those are behind us as we come upon something more challenging and world shaping. We'll see.
Like I said, there seems to be a cycle within generations, and it is shown in the Bible. In the Sunday School class we have just worked our way through Judges. . .and Judges is a book that is filled with the cycle, and all throughout, there is the repeated refrain. . . "and in that time there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as they pleased" . . . again and again it says those very same words. And in between those words you have a repeated pattern. God acts in the life of the community, and that generation is faithful, the next lives in peace, the next goes astray, and then the next deals with calamity, God acts again, inspiring a great leader to surface and lead the people back to God, and then the cycle continues repeating itself. It happens again and again, whether the hero is Deborah, or Gideon, or Samson, or countless others. It keeps repeating.
You could say that the pattern is very similar here in our story in Genesis. Abraham walks with God, Isaac follows in his father's footsteps, not much to tell, a time of peace, then Jacob faces some challenges, you could say that he goes astray at times, especially in his younger days, but then he has those sons, and they each have problems starting with their treatment of their youngest brother, Joseph, who becomes that next person to take that difficult walk with God, and bring about the healing that is needed. . . but even after Joseph the pattern repeats, because eventually there is a Pharoah, who does not know Joseph, and Israel finds themselves in slavery. Sometimes the pattern finds itself here, slavery, or tyranny because then sometimes when there are kings involved it seems like the pattern is delayed, like the control can stave off the cycle's depths for awhile, but what seems to happen in that case is the cycle just gets wider, the highs get higher, and when the destruction comes it gets deeper. . . there are reasons for that, that we'll look at later in this series, especially when we get to the period of the kings in Israel, and often those kings are chosen to make the pattern wider, to stave off some of the pain. . . the very pain and hard walk with God that leads us to the new closeness, the new high point, the new time of great peace and faith, that safe middle time like Isaac and Rebekah seem to enjoy.
What is most interesting is it seems, at least there is a theory, that this similar pattern of a four generation, 80 year, four score cycle has occurred and may still be recurring within American history. And in some ways it makes sense, we are in fact living in a time of freedom, "there is no king" here. We call the second half of that statement, the "every one did as they liked" part: liberty, the great experiment of liberty, and we speak of it in a much more positive connotation, than what I feel when I read it repeated in the book of Judges. We enjoy freedom. We see it as a great thing, a natural right, in other words, the way that God, and God's laws created human beings to live. There is no king by design. . . self rule, or as could be argued ruled by God, and the natural systems God has set up to govern the world he created for us, within those systems and within God's provident care, flourishing beyond what humans can imagine.
But as I said there are theories that historians have, that I find interesting and compelling, that we can see these cycles within the story of American History, and I say the story of American history because obviously the day to day is much more complicated than any single narrative, but surveys of history like this are about the patterns rather than the details. If you do the math, much of the major events in our history, both defining moments and Awakenings of religion seem to be spaced out in these 80 year spaces. . . four generations, or as Lincoln put it four score. . . If you think about it the founding of the colonies in the early 1600's, especially in New England, where most of our history is centered (at least since the Civil War shifted the center of study northward). The first generation to come across, are zealots and hard workers. From much of what we see of them they saw their mission as God's work, they were Separatists, they were seeking religious freedom, in a new land, in a new place, in a new world, they wanted to create a "City on a Hill" for the world to see: a perfect Christian society. The second generation was relatively stable, but then by the third we see much more turmoil and friction. If you read the sermons of the time they get much more intense, trying to instill fear in the people, to control. It's typical to preach like that not because everybody is doing what you want, but rather because they are not, it is obviously in response to a generation they saw slipping away from the founding faithful ideals of the founders of the settlement. You have perceived if not real decline, and the powers that be begin to tighten down. In this time period you have the Witch Trials of the 1690's, the famous ones in Salem having as much to do with squabbles over property as the supernatural workings of the devil, but regardless you have a time of turmoil, King Phillip's War as well in this time, but this is all followed by the First Great Awakening, all clearing the way for the American revolution, a period of great struggle, but also great movement forward for the ideals of liberty, and the following of "divine providence" as the Declaration of Independence puts it. This great event is followed by the second Great Awakening. . . yet another period of Religious fervor within the country. Which brings us to four score and seven years later, 87 years, when in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln gives the Gettysburg Address. . . certainly the next biggest challenge to the American people, divided greatly, and then interestingly enough roughly 80 years later the country goes through the Great Depression. . .and the turmoil and disillusion of that, followed by the hard struggle and greatness of World War II, coming together to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific and the Nazi's in Europe, some would say a walk with God against evil. . . also followed by a highpoint in religious fervor in the fifties, when we saw the membership of churches at their highest levels.
And we are living roughly 60 years from then. Where are we on that pattern? Where are we in the middle? Have we passed the Isaac and Rebekah stage, where nothing really happens, when people get married and have kids. . .. Is that the years where baby boom generation was born?  Is that the fifties and early sixties? Has there also been the period where tradition was questioned, where people go astray? Are we looking at a point now where nothing is for certain, and many things seem to be spiraling out of control? It is here that many pastors would say, like our Colonial Predecessors did back in New England, offering Jeremiad warnings, like the prophet Jeremiah, that we should get it together or it is going to end badly for us, but I’m not going to do that. There are many parallels in American History, if you look at them with certain eyes, and again I say that because history doesn't necessarily have patterns as they are lived. . . It may not be real, none of it may be real. The evidence and facts of history may be wrong or incomplete, but it is interesting to think about. No matter what it is in God’s hands not our own. . . this seems the most important thing to remember as we walk forward together.
You have to admit that there are many striking similarities between the last 20 years and the time of the 20's and 30's. The early 2000's of excess and speculation, followed by the bubble bursting and economic hardship. There are many issues that we face today. Some are good and some aren't. . . it is impossible to say what is to come next. Many may say that the world is going down the tubes and these kids today just don't understand truth, don't understand what it's all about, have lost sight of God, have no faith. . . In someways that may be the case, at least that is an oft made perception. But that is what it is, perception. . . because even when the story isn't interesting God is there, even when the story gets difficult God is there, even when people go astray and try to lock God out of their lives, they really can't. God is working his way. .. . out of the darkness God is constantly bringing light. So if this cycle theory is real, if we are heading for hard times. . . let them come, it is in trying to alter this path that the liberty is lost and replaced with tyranny, we need not seek a king to lead us away from the edge, which only puts off the calamity and makes it much deeper, but if that is God's will, it will all work out, and on the other side all will be made right. Think about it these patterns have been here before, we’ve split apart and become divided before, we’ve walked difficult roads before, we’ve struggled as a people before and always God has brought us through. . . and will again.
But let's use this historical theory now to understand the Biblical story that much better. In this time of peace for Isaac and Rebekah, they are raising their kids. They will walk with God themselves, but how do they pass that on to Jacob and his brother Esau? How do they teach the faithful journey that Abraham had walked? Do they not know because their faithful journey has been much easier, much less fraught with peril, and twists and turns? Have they not experienced that, so passed on a much different world view to Jacob and to Esau? I want to make sure we keep these questions in our head, as we go further into the story of Jacob, whose name means trickster, who will wrestle with God and then become Israel the namesake of the chosen people, from whose struggle we have learned so much about ourselves and about the God we serve. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 24:52-60). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.