Reading, Genesis 27:1-35
Image, Richard McBee, Isaac Returns (1997 30" x 24”)
It is one of those impeccable works of Biblical irony, that Isaac, whose name and birth revolves around laughter, is such a sad figure. When he is born, his mother Sarah celebrates the blessing and says God has made me laughter… but here we find him, nearing the end of his days, trembling violently having been tricked out of a blessing by Rebekah and Jacob.
One of the common references for God in scripture is that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But sandwiched within the middle there, it can be hard to know what to make of Isaac, the forgotten middle child of biblical patriarchs. Abraham is Father Abraham – the great man of faith, the paradigm of hospitality, the father of many religions. Jacob is this almost mythic trickster figure who not only steals a blessing from his dad, but wrestles another out of an angel.
By contrast, this is Isaac’s life. He is born into joy, though his existence soon proves a point of conflict – when out of fear, Sarah will expel his half-brother Ishmael from the household. Isaac is then taken up the mountain to be (nearly) sacrificed, after which he disappears from the narrative for some time and never sees his father again. Abraham’s servant brings Rebekah to him, and he loves her and takes her into his mother’s home. Though he is soon forced to move about seeking security and fresh water. During one of these sojourns he does the old, “this woman, no she’s not my wife, she’s my sister” move that Abraham was so fond of! He and Rebekah struggle for two decades to have children, and even then, their twins are born fated to be in opposition which crescendos in today’s reading. All Isaac does after this (again, like father like son) is ask Jacob not to marry a woman from amongst the Canaanites, before disappearing for six long chapters followed by a two-verse notice of his death. Again, I ask, what do we make of Isaac? A man of seemingly little will, acquainted with sorrows and disappointments.
Well, I think the first thing we do is take a lot of hope. Because if God is the God of Abraham, that’s great, but intimidating. Because who is ready to stand next to a man whose faith is so strong it can obliterate any ties to his earthly kin. And if God is the God of Jacob, this is equally disquieting, because who among us is ready to throw caution to the wind time and again to procure and secure blessings by hook and by crook. But if God is also the God of Isaac, we take hope, because Isaac is at least relatable. If God is the God of Isaac, then God is the God of the traumatised and the shaken. God of those who long for so little, only to for that to disappoint them. God for those who stake no great claim on the world nor shape it in their image. God for those who were taken advantage of in the vulnerability of childhood and old age. God for those of broken dreams and broken hearts, who stumble and bend under the weight of family expectations. God for those who are almost forgotten by their death. If God is the God of Isaac, then God is the God of many more.
Not that such a confession should surprise us, for we know that as God in flesh, Jesus was not unfamiliar with troubles. Jesus too, is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Like Isaac, Jesus’ birth is a miraculous source of joy, and yet much of his trouble, grief, and frustration comes when the expectations of others do not fit with his intent. Jesus wept and grieved, he was troubled, afflicted and mistreated. And yet, this is why he is a pathway through to love. As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote in the fourth century, For that which [Jesus] has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. Gregory taught that Jesus had indeed assumed and experienced human nature in its totality (even our sorrows and strife) and therefore all of this was able to be healed, all of us could be united with him and redeemed by his divinity. We take heart and hope, because by being acquainted with our grief, Jesus is able to offer relief and redemption. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, Jesus, our high priest, is able to sympathise with our weaknesses [because] in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Because God is the God of Isaac, a man acquainted with grief and disappointment, and because God in Christ has assumed the trials and woes of our kind, then our own personal trials, sadness, and disappointment is does not keep us outside of the covenant, does not separates us from God’s love, does not deny us the calling, does not bar us from fellowship. Instead, it is the very thing that permits us to approach the throne of grace with boldness, for Jesus has assumed (known) even this, and because of that he can offer redemption and a share in his divinity. The church is thus not the body of Christ so long as it has its act together, covers its wounds and supresses its trauma. No, the church is the body of Christ because Christ has made it so. The church is the body of Christ as it bears and tends to wounds… for Christ was wounded. The church is the body of Christ when it suffers and struggles… for Christ suffered and struggled. The church is the body of Christ when it laments… for Christ brought lament to God. The Christian is not the one who has successfully hidden or triumphed over their sadness, the Christian is the one Christ has united to his divinity because he has shared every part of our humanity and his blessing cannot be stolen.
God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The blessing, and calling of God does not skip a generation. Isaac is no forgotten middle child, for God’s own child has also walked his lonely road. So, whenever we find ourselves on that road, take heart, because this too was assumed by Christ so that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need
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