From Eden to Egypt 7: The God of Chickens
SEVENTH AFTER PENTECOST JULY 19TH, 2020 GENESIS 28:10-19
From Eden to Egypt: 7
Let me tell you about Alan. Alan was the fourth of four children born to an austere Baptist pastor and his equally austere wife. As youngest children sometimes do, Alan grew up with a sense of insecurity. His big sister and two big brothers were more articulate than him, and more mobile than him. Alan was so unsure of himself that he developed a stammer. A painfully debilitating stammer. To add to his insecurity, this was wartime and Alan was evacuated to a boarding school in the English countryside, where he was mocked by teachers in a way that only English schoolmasters can mock, and laughed at in a way that only English private schoolboys can laugh. But Alan was blessed with a good mind, and did well enough at school to go to university and before leaving high school he began to think about what he should study and what his eventual career might be.
Now Alan, still struggling with his stammer, made a surprising and even heroic choice. He considered his disability – his speech impediment, and he decided to face it head on. With such a speech impediment, most of us would choose a career that required little or no interaction with other people. Maybe a research scientist, alone in a lab, because test tubes don’t demand you talk; or an accountant contentedly but silently, sitting behind a desk, because numbers don’t ask you to speak. But not Alan. Alan chose to become a prosecuting attorney – because of his speech impediment. Because this profession would force him to overcome his challenge. Can there be a more terrifying job for a stammerer than standing before a court, trying to persuade them of someone’s guilt or innocence? When Alan retired he still had a faint trace of a stammer that was only noticeable in moments when he was off-guard. Those were the moments I saw him – out of court and away from the office. Alan Johnston, my father, died 16 years ago, and if were here he’d be very unhappy that I was making him the hero of a sermon story. But he serves as an example to me of courage – deliberately choosing to do something frightening when he could easily choose not to. A bit like the film the King’s Speech, except that George the Sixth didn’t have much of a choice about his career. Facing the challenge and not running away.
We reserve the status of hero for people who have a choice to walk away but don’t. 2020 has thrust millions of heroes into the limelight. Women and men in the medical profession, public transport, shop workers, nursing home staff. People who could find work doing something safer, but who have chosen to go to work each day in a place that makes them vulnerable to Covid.
The good news is that when we freely choose the hard option, the risky option, the option that forces us to trust God, we are usually rewarded. And the Bible is full of people who prove the point. That’s good news.
But what if the good news is even better than that? What if God doesn’t just come through for people of courage, but also shows up for cowards? What if the good news is so good that God appears not just to heroes but to chickens; that he goes not just with the people who stride boldly to face the challenge, but he also accompanies people who are running away? Because that is what happens in today’s episode in our summer sermon series, From Eden to Egypt. Last week John Francis told us about the twins Jacob and Esau. These two brothers who may have shared a womb but that was about all. You’ll remember that their mum and dad committed the unforgivable sin in parenthood – each had a favorite; Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah preferred Jacob. And we heard how Jacob, egged on by his mom, tricked Esau out of his inheritance. Jacob then runs away to escape his brother’s vengeance. Quite sensible too, in my opinion, seeing as how Jacob was not what you’d call an outdoorsy kind of guy, but Esau (who according to the King James Version was ‘an hairy man’) was into hunting and hard manual work. Running away from the consequences of his trickery seemed like a smart option.
So the fugitive Jacob is on the run. And where do you go when you’re scared, when you’re looking for safety? You go home. So Jacob heads towards his grandfather’s hometown, Haran – the place of his ancestors, a place where he will find security and meaning – a solid compass point. But it’s a long journey, and so on the way he beds down for the night under the stars. And while he’s asleep he has this life-changing dream. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
God is the God of the holy, the brave, and the faithful; and of the unholy, the cowardly, the faithless. What if the good news is better than we can imagine? We assume that God loves faithful Christian people more than he loves those who couldn’t care less about God… But what if the good news is better than that?
We assume that this story was going according to the laws of natural justice. Jacob was a schemer who had swindled his twin brother out of what was rightfully his – not just anyone, mind you, but the person with whom he had the closest relationship that is possible between two human beings. Esau is mad, and it looks like Jacob may never enjoy the riches that he had gained from his deception… But what if the good news is better than even that? Instead of his comeuppance, Jacob gets a covenant. Instead of the punishment his sin deserved, he receives land and descendants he didn’t deserve.
God chases humans. He pursues us when we run away. I make foolish decisions and unhealthy, even sinful, choices. I’ve seen my enemy, and he looks a lot like me. Sometimes I don’t step out in faith, but run away from the challenge and even from God, if that were possible. I need a God who follows me even when I’m running away from him. I need the God of Jacob. I need the news that God will not let me go even if I choose to run from him.
In 1981, a Minnesota radio station reported a story about a stolen car in California. Police were staging an intense search for the vehicle and the driver, even to the point of placing announcements on local radio stations to contact the thief. On the front seat of the stolen car sat a box of crackers that, unknown to the thief, were laced with poison. The car owner had intended to use the crackers as rat bait. The police and the owner of the Volkswagen Beetle were not primarily interested in punishing the perp, but in saving them. In the same way God chases us, and sometimes we run because we believe that he intends to punish us, or at least to change us into miserable people. But God’s motive is to bless, to save, to rescue. So if you hear the footsteps of God behind you, getting closer and closer, stop walking, turn around and let him embrace you and take you home.
My friend Martin didn’t get that. When I was a student a group of us went to a Christian camp. Martin was one of the most sincere and earnest young men I’ve ever known, and an extremely devout Christian. One day as he and I were walking past a row of chalets fronted by large plate windows our friend Nige suddenly ran up from behind us, leapt on my back and demanded, “Dunc, give me a piggyback.” Now my frame has never been what you’d call sturdy, and I was giving Nige at least 50 pounds, and not surprisingly I staggered around for a few feet with him on my back before toppling over – into the large plate glass window of the chalet we were passing. The window was closed. Nige went through it in a spectacular shower of glass and a lot of blood. Thankfully, he wasn’t badly hurt and needed just a few stitches. I was unharmed. But for Martin this caused a theological problem, and he had to interpret it in the light of God’s justice. And he pronounced that the accident happened because when people mess around God removes his hand of protection from them. But I need better news than that. I need to hear that he blesses even the stupid. He chases us in love.
You see the place of cowardice is the place where we meet God. That is the experience of Jacob the fugitive. And I think I know the reason for this surprising spiritual truth. I think it lies in vulnerability. It’s why Jonah meets God in the belly of a fish, why Peter meets God while sinking into a lake, and why Jesus receives courage in the Garden of Gethsemane. The place of our deepest fears and our most overwhelming helplessness is the place where we meet God is his most gracious and powerful. There is nowhere in this massive and expanding universe that is forsaken by God, and nowhere we can run to escape God’s grace. May you this week be aware of your fears – the conversation you’re dreading but you know you must have; the family situation that causes you angst, that doctor’s appointment, that job interview, that change in life that you weren’t expecting and don’t relish. Hear the Word of the Lord – even if you do choose to run away and hide you will not outrun God, and you cannot escape from his grace.