The Games Families Play…Or Not!

by Rev. Doug Gray

One of the things I love about the Bible, especially the OT, is that God seems to choose unlikely, sometimes flawed people to bring redemption and hope. In the Book of Genesis, once we leave Creation and Noah behind, almost the entire book is about a single, dysfunctional family system that God chooses to pour out love and blessing on and through. It starts with 2 people—Abraham and Sarah—who answer when God calls. God says, “Go to a land I will show you.” And then God promises, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abraham and Sarah sell the house, pack up the camels and start. Where? They only know to keep going until God says stop. Now that’s what I call faith! But the promise is also about family. Just like Abraham and Sarah who go for many decades without children, their son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Rebekah, are having a similar problem. Will the power of the promise continue to work? How can God make them a great nation when they do not have any children? That’s where we pick up the story today.

What are some of your favorite board games or card games?

[take responses from the congregation]

Why are they your favorites?

[take responses from the congregation]

Part of the reason they are your favorites may be because you just like to win, or because of the good times you have had around the table. But we generally don’t like playing games with people who are over-competitive, who are mean, or who cheat. Right? So when we look at today’s passage, we have a problem—the main characters do all of these things…and more! How the blazes are we to understand God working through this story?
First, faithful people are always trying to find God. One day, a four-year old went to the doctor for a check-up. As the doctor looked into her ears, he asked, “Do you think I’ll find Elmo in here?” The little girl stayed silent. Next, the doctor took a tongue depressor and looked down her throat. He asked, “Do you think I’ll find Sponge Bob down there?” Again, the little girl was silent. Then the doctor put a stethoscope to her chest. As he listened to her heart beat, he asked, “Do you think I’ll hear Barney in there?” “Oh, no!” the little girl replied. “Jesus is in my heart. Barney’s on my underpants.” God is in Isaac’s and Rebekah’s lives. They pray to God. They lean on God for strength and understanding. Are they flawed human beings? Sure. And still they are trying to find God and believe God cares and has power.
Second, watch out for trading away future hope for present security. Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of stew—and gives up his inheritance to fill his belly. Jacob, on the other hand, gives up his integrity to score a win against his brother. I worry about how easy it is to give up our privacy to have a few laughs and see my high-school friends’ pictures. I worry about how often our society seems to make decisions out of our escalating fears, when probably better decisions are made out of loving concern. Oh, wait I see now, that I too can get sucked into worries. Jesus’ disciple, John, writes, “Mature love casts out fear,” so God makes our present secure, and holds out the amazing hope of a better future. Paul writes in our Romans passage, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” We don’t have to choose between future hope and present security because God secures them both.
The scandal in all of this is that God chooses. God chooses Abraham and Sarah, out of all the others in their time, to receive the promise of descendants and a land and a purpose:  to be a blessing to all peoples. God chooses Isaac instead of Ishmael. God chooses Jacob instead of Esau. Why? It’s not fair! No, it is not fair. “They are such flawed human beings,” we think. “God could do better.” And we are probably right…but God chose them. All of a sudden, we are face-to-face with one of the great mysteries of all existence:  that God has chosen you…and me…to love, and die for in Jesus Christ. Wait! Time out! That’s not fair! I didn’t ask for it! It’s true—you didn’t ask for it! Paul writes, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin…”(Romans 8:3) God reminds us that if it were about the rules, about boot-strapping our way to being good, we would all fail and lose the game. We could never be good enough, never keep the rules well enough, and like Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau and all humans, we can always find way to mess things up. And still God chooses them and still God chooses us—out of love.
So the real question becomes, how will we respond? How will our lives be different because God chose us, because God loves us? The real hope is that what was utterly impossible for Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau, is possible for us who know Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of a right relationship with God. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.(Romans 8:10–11) And we are empowered by the Spirit to let our fears be overcome by love, to let our selfishness be flooded with trust, and to let our anxieties be replaced by hope. We don’t have to play the manipulating games other people may play. In Christ, we can be a better friend, a better member of the family, because we have strength and wisdom and kindness beyond our own. Life is more than a game and God is at work in us, and with God, in the end we know we will always win.