Genesis 16:1-11, Matthew 2:1-11.
The Bible reports that Abraham, the “father of the faithful,” had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael quickly recedes into the background (along with six other sons born in his old age to a concubine) and the Bible becomes the story of the Isaac branch of the family of Abraham. The Hebrew people (grandchildren of Isaac) emigrate to Egypt, are enslaved, then rescued by God. The Hebrew people become a kingdom with David as its most illustrious monarch. Among Hebrews prophets arise—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel. And from the Hebrew royal line comes the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, father of the Christians. This is the story that is featured in our worship. It is the story we rehearse and claim as our own. But what about the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael? God had promised Abraham that Ishmael, too, would father a great nation. God would honor his friendship with Abraham by showing kindness to Abraham’s “other son.” Did God forget his promise? Skip forward in time to one of the greatest Hebrew prophets, Isaiah. In one of his visions of the New Earth, the prophet writes regarding the descendants of Ishmael, “They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.” When the vision of God reaches its glorious climax, the hidden siblings of Israel are publicly welcomed and honored. God keeps his promises, even to the second class family members, even to those who appear lost beyond recall, distant to the point of invisibility. As children of God we are invited to partner with God in welcoming our secret siblings.
As Karin and I were planning our move to Green Lake Church, we knew one thing would be different from every other church we had pastored. We would have relatives in the church. Erik and Katrina and Brian and Naomi. Never before had anyone in our churches had connections with our families or even with our pasts.
Shortly after we arrived I was greeting people at the door and I met a woman named Edith Burden. I did a double take. Burden? Are you related to H. O. Burden? She was. Another relative.
Then I met with a woman whose husband was in a Seattle hospital with a scary diagnosis. I had heard about her because some people were critical of a specialized ministry she was involved in. I visited her at the hospital. We talked for a long time. I was fascinated by the potential of her ministry. At some point she said, “You do know we are related right?”
I felt like an idiot. We had been talking for an hour. I did not recall we had ever met, much less that we were cousins. I try to say nice things about everybody I meet because who knows—they might be relatives!
Family is special. We carry a special sense of responsibility for our relatives. If one of our nieces or nephews flies into town, they know they have free airport shuttle service and a free hotel room at our place. Some people in this congregation have taken this family responsibility to great extremes. You have literally saved the lives of relatives. If I ask why you do it, you shrug your shoulders and say, “What else could we do.” Help was needed. Help was provided. That’s part of the way family works—when it works the way it’s supposed to.
Family connection is central to the Bible story. The book of Genesis features genealogies, family histories. And the most important genealogy is the record of the ancestors of Abraham and the record of the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Jacob. You are in the story if you are part of that family. You are peripheral to the story if you are not in that family.
This story of the family of Abraham’s grandson plays out through the rest of the Old Testament. The descendants of Jacob split into two nations. The Bible keeps track of both nations until the northern kingdom goes extinct.
The story continues and sets up the story of Jesus. Jesus is the descendant of David, and Abraham and Adam . . . who is the Son of God.
This is the story that stands at the center of our worship. We claim the Bible story as our story. We claim the promises to the Jewish people as promises to us. We imagine ourselves as part of the beloved family. When God talks of never forgetting Israel, we read those words as applying to us: God will never forget me. When God promises to forgive Israel, we apply those promises to ourselves. We are “spiritual Israel.” we say. We claim this connection because of the Apostle Paul.
Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. Rom 4:13 NLT
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. Rom 4:16
Abraham is the father of all who believe—the spiritual father. We are spiritual children of Abraham. This is nice. It allows us to apply to ourselves all the good promises of mercy and protection God gave to the ancient Jewish people. We are in the family.
This is wonderful. It also carries a risk. Sometimes we who have been taken into the family appoint ourselves as custodians and guardians of the purity of the family. We imagine there is only one family of God and we are it. And the only way for anyone to be part of the family of God is to submit to the name and identity of our particular family.
I remember reading an encyclical by Pope John Paul II in which he carefully explained that while the Catholic Church had charitable feelings toward other Christian bodies, those other Christian bodies were not really churches. Because there was only one church and the church of Rome was it. It reminded me of Adventist literature which makes exactly the same claim. We—our denomination—we are the one true church, the one actual, visible church of God, and everyone else is a spiritual outsider.
We base these notions of “one true people of God” on the Bible story of the Jewish people. The Jews were the people of God. Jerusalem was the city of God. Now we—Adventists or Catholics or Missouri Synod Lutherans or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Church of Christ—we are the new people of God. Our denomination is the New Jerusalem.
But let’s look a little closer at the Bible story.
Abraham had no children and he was getting old. Sarah, his wife, suggested he take her maid, Hagar, as a concubine so he would have an heir. Abraham agreed and Hagar got pregnant. But things didn’t go so well. Hagar got uppity and Sarah got mad. The abuse from Sarah was so bad, Hagar ran away. An angel found her out in the desert and sent her back home with this promise: Your son will be great. His descendants will become an uncountable multitude.
When Ishmael was a teenager, God appeared to Abraham and announced that Sarah was going to have a son, and this son was going to be the one to inherit the promises God had made to Abraham. Abraham protested: What about my son Ishmael?
“I will bless him to,” God said. “I will make his descendants into a great nation.” With that Ishmael pretty much disappears from the Bible story. He reappears when Abraham dies, participating in the funeral honoring his father. Then silence. Decades, centuries of story roll on with no record of Ishmael and his descendants. Until we come to the prophet Isaiah. In chapter 60, this great gospel prophet is describing how it will be in the New Earth and he writes:
“They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar,
And I will glorify the house of My glory.”
Ishmael is the secret sibling, the unknown relative. When God’s vision reaches it grand fulfillment, the entire family will be gathered including the secret siblings, the brothers and sisters we did not know we had, the cousins that were completely invisible to us.
This idea of secret children of God pops up all through the Bible story and features especially in the stories of Jesus.
When Jesus is born the royalty that shows up to pay homage are strangers from the East. We have no idea who they were. We don’t know their fathers. We don’t know their religion. We don’t know their nationality. These mysterious royal figures echo the person Melchezidek whom Abraham honored as his spiritual superior. Both the Kings from the East who honored Jesus and Melchezidek who received tithes from Abraham highlight the fact that there is a spiritual reality completely independent of the “people of God,” the corporate body that is the focus of any particular holy story.
Jesus repeatedly made a point of “expanding” the holy family.
The Centurion who had more faith than any Jewish person Jesus had met.
Jesus made the most unveiled assertion of his identity as the Messiah to a Samaritan woman.
Jesus pointed to the Good Samaritan as a premier example of what it meant to be obedient to God.
Out of a group of ten men healed of leprosy only the Samaritan returned to give thanks.
Jesus challenged his Jewish audience: Many will come from the east and west and sit down at the heavenly banquet, but you will be left out.
It was a crippled woman, someone who bore the external marks of divine disapproval that Jesus called “a daughter of Abraham.
Zacchaeus had divided loyalties. He collaborated with the Roman occupiers and was dishonest to boot. Upon his repentance, Jesus announced this man, too, was a son of Abraham.
Luke 4, Jesus preached a sermon in his home town. The audience loved it until Jesus pointedly highlighted God’s favor to a couple of foreigners, the Widow of Nain and Naaman. The audience got so mad they tried to kill him.
So what? What does all this have to do with our lives?
First, we think of ourselves as special. We find a special place in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. That’s us, we say, pointing to certain passages. This is a good thing. If we are special, it will help us act like special people. We are the Jesus people. We can count on the special favor of God
Then what? Part of being Jesus people is learning to see our secret siblings, learning to recognize our family connection with all sorts of people.
The Bible centers its story on the family of Jacob, more specifically, the part of that family which is connected with the lineage of Jesus. Those people are supposed to remember they are family and show each other the kinds of mutual respect and support that is appropriate in a family.
Then the Bible points us outward. The circle of family gets wider and wider. We discover more and more secret siblings until we come to the Gospel of Luke.
Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus back to King David and to Abraham—the greatest heroes of the Jewish story. Then Luke keeps going. According to the Gospel of Luke Jesus’ family is not only the family of Abraham and David. Luke traces the genealogy all the way to Adam the Son of God.
Our family is the family of humanity. Every human is part of our clan.
We are special. And we are called to extend the benefits and privileges we enjoy as widely as possible.
Our house is a house of prayer for all nations.