BETTER THAN LUCK
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
July 2, 2017; 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

“And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns.
Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide…’”
Genesis 22:13-14a

Sometimes we want to make certain characters from the Bible bigger than life. Those people God singles out for particular work: we want to put them on a pedestal. We want to revere them. And if one of them should bear the title “patriarch,” then the pedestal rises even higher.

The Bible itself, though, is pretty good at bringing these people down to earth. It portrays even great biblical heroes as having serious flaws.

The past several weeks, we’ve been looking at the story of Abraham. We can admire him for his bold decision, at the age of 70, to set out in search of a promised land, but there are also plenty of occasions when we can glimpse this patriarch’s feet of clay.

We’ve seen a couple examples in the scripture readings of the past several weeks.

Remember when the Lord promises Abraham and Sarah they’re going to have a child in their old age? This couple — whom we regard as giants of the faith — don’t believe it at first. Sarah actually laughs in the face of God’s generosity.

Then there was the story from last week about how, having received the promise, Sarah and Abraham grow impatient. They cook up a little scheme by which Abraham has a son by Sarah’s slave, Hagar. When their own son Isaac’s finally born, Sarah grows jealous of Hagar and her son Ishmael. She convinces the spineless Abraham to drive them both out into the desert with a single loaf of bread and just one waterskin. An angel of the Lord has to swoop in and rescue them from certain death — setting them up with a covenant of their own.

There’s another scandalous Abraham-and-Sarah story as well: one we haven’t looked at. I’ll just mention it briefly for you now, before moving on to today’s text. Way back in Genesis 12, a famine descends upon the land. In order to survive, Abraham and Sarah go down into Egypt to beg for food. Fearing that the Egyptian men may lust after his attractive wife —and worried that they may kill him to get her— Abraham decides to pass Sarah off as his unmarried sister.

Well, the Pharaoh himself takes a liking to her. He demands that Abraham give Sarah to him so she can join his harem. The shifty Abraham fears what will happen if his lie is exposed, so he agrees. Off to Pharaoh’s palace goes Sarah.

Thanks to the Lord, things don’t go especially well for Pharaoh after that. Various plagues appear in his household. Eventually, word gets out that this has happened because Pharaoh took the wife of another man (even though he didn’t know it). Disgusted with Abraham’s slippery ways, he sends Sarah back to her husband. The king restores to them everything they’ve lost, before sending them packing.

It ought to be pretty clear by now that God didn’t single Abraham out for the covenant because of the man’s high moral virtue. The initiative is entirely on God’s side. If God has reasons for choosing Abraham in particular, the Bible never tells us what they are.

*****

There’s one troubling passage yet to look at, and it’s the strangest and most terrifying of them all. It’s the passage we heard just a little while ago: Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

What the Lord’s asking Abraham to do sounds terrible, even monstrous: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

God’s given Abraham a son in fulfillment of the covenant. Through the offspring of this boy, Isaac, all the families of the earth will be blessed. But how can this happen, if Abraham kills the boy? How can the covenant be fulfilled?

The Bible doesn’t answer that question. It just tells the story, in all its raw and terrifying detail.

It all culminates in these two gruesome sentences: “He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.” He was ready to do it.

What sort of monster does such a thing? And what sort of God demands such a sacrifice?

Such are the questions we bring to this difficult biblical text. But the Bible doesn’t seem especially interested in answering them.

In the end, the worst doesn’t happen. God provides an alternative. An angel shows up. He points out a ram conveniently trapped in a thicket. Sacrifice the ram, the angel says to Abraham. Then you won’t have to sacrifice your son.

You could say Abraham’s a lucky man. Life has sent him down a blind alley. He’s staring at a brick wall, with no way out. Then, suddenly — miraculously — he notices a door. That door is his salvation. Lucky Abraham!

It’s the same thing that happens to him again and again. Trapped in Egypt by his own lies. Childless at 70, in a world that values children above all else. No matter what misfortune may occur, no matter what blind alley he finds himself in, lucky Abraham finds a way out in the nick of time!

*****

We live in a society that values luck very highly. Certainly, luck is very important down in Atlantic City. Or in any convenience store, across this great State, where you can buy a lottery ticket if you’re so inclined.

There are lots of things people do to try to improve their luck, in life. Anyone who’s ever tried to sell a house has probably had someone advise them to bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in the back yard. Who knows where that crazy superstition comes from, but there are people who swear by it.

I heard a new one the other day. A couple who were planning their wedding asked if they could follow “an old Southern tradition.” It seems that, if you bury a bottle of bourbon near the site of your wedding ceremony, then dig it up and toast each other just before Big Day, you can count on clear weather. (I asked a pastor friend of mine who’s lived all his life in North Carolina if he’d ever heard of this “old Southern tradition,” and he said no, he’d never heard of it. But this couple read about it on the Internet, so it has to be true, right?)

I heard another story a while back, about a little shop in San Francisco. I don’t know what kind of shop it was, but outside the store window, on a little table, sat a statue of a laughing Buddha. There was a sign over top of the statue. It said, “For wisdom, rub my head. For good luck, rub my belly.” Well, after years of that chubby little Buddha sitting there on his table outside the shop, you can guess which part of the statue has all the paint rubbed off. (Hint: it’s not the head, the seat of wisdom.) It’s the belly! Most people value good luck even more than wisdom!

There’s an old saying Thomas Edison used to enjoy quoting. It goes like this: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Most people, if truth be told, would rather put their trust in dumb luck.

*****

But not Abraham. The man’s got no end of personal flaws and shortcomings, but he does turn out to be a pretty good theologian. Abraham doesn’t seem to think his discovery of the ram in the thicket has anything to do with luck.

When it begins to dawn on poor Isaac what a terrible act his father has in mind, he says, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

Abraham doesn’t say, in response, “Don’t worry about it, Sonny, maybe we’ll get lucky!” No, what Abraham says is, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

After everything is said and done, and after they’ve discovered the ram trapped in the thicket, the Bible says: “Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’”

Three times this little story uses the word, “provide.” It’s the one point the author of Genesis hammers home, so we don’t miss it. This is not a story about luck. It’s a story about something else that may resemble luck, but is very different. It’s a story about something called providence.

*****

Hiding within that larger word is the word, “provide.” Providence is how God generously provides us with the essentials of life. And it’s something we’d all do well to rely on a little more confidently than we do.

Forget lottery tickets. Forget the St. Joseph statue buried in the backyard. Forget rubbing the tummy of the laughing Buddha. It’s God’s providence that will really get you through, not dumb luck.

Not that you or I are going to get everything we want in life. God’s not some great cosmic vending machine, dispensing all the goodies we want, every time. No, there will be times in life when things don’t go our way. But that doesn’t mean God’s providence isn’t at work, even so. When our hopes are dashed, when the diagnosis goes south, when someone disappoints us very, very deeply, it just may be that the way God’s providence works is to provide us with what we need to tough it out.

In another famous Bible story, the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land. They know it will be tough going. They know they’ll have to fight the Canaanites to claim God’s promise. And they also know Moses, their leader — who’s now 120 years old — will not cross the Jordan River with them.

It’s then that Moses gives them some parting words of encouragement: “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you” [Deuteronomy 31:6]

If you understand, deep within you, the truth of these words — if you know in your heart that, no matter what happens, the Lord will never fail you nor forsake you — then you’ve gone a long way toward realizing what a big role God’s providence plays in your life.

*****

It’s something the founders of our nation knew well. George Washington, in particular. He used the word “providence” frequently in his speeches and letters.

On October 27, 1777 — at a low point in the struggle for independence — Washington penned a letter to one Landon Carter. He reassured him, saying, “I flatter myself that a superintending Providence is ordering everything for the best, and that, in due time, all will end well.”

Here’s one more example, for this Fourth of July weekend. After the long struggle was over — on June 11, 1783 — Washington wrote this to the Rev. John Rodgers: “Glorious indeed has been our Contest: glorious, if we consider the Prize for which we have contended, and glorious in its Issue; but in the midst of our Joys, I hope we shall not forget that, to divine Providence is to be ascribed the Glory and the Praise.”

“The Lord will provide.” It’s the very same lesson learned by that rogue Abraham, through all his ill-considered schemes, narrow scrapes and hair-raising adventures. Abraham learned to look, off to the side, for the ram in the thicket. It was the sign that God is faithful, and can be trusted to give us all we truly need in life.

*****

As we gather, shortly, around the Table of the Lord, there is no need for us to perform a sacrifice to win God’s favor. The only sacrifice that matters is the sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus, for our sins — and that sacrifice was completed long ago. Today we celebrate it: and remember.

Here on this table there will soon be spread good, spiritual food, to sustain us on our journey. This day — as every day — through the presence of our living Lord, Jesus Christ, God does provide!

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.