The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 8/31/08
Text: Luke 13:18-30
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

A little girl came home from school and asked her mother if she knew Christopher Columbus was Italian. "Yes," said Mom.

And the girl continued, "Did you know that Queen Isabella furnished the money to buy his ships?"

"Yes, dear, I had heard that."

The little girl thought for a moment and then said reflectively, "Well, really, Mother, if you already know the things I come home and tell you, I don't see any use in going to school."

By the time we get done here this morning, you may feel the same about coming to church today. I hope not, but we shall see.

I am glad you are in church today and hope you will be back in church next week and the week after and the week after that, and especially after our arrival in November, but even more, my prayer is that the church will be in YOU every day. Too many Christians are perceived by the world as sowing their wild oats for six days of the week, then coming in on the seventh to pray for a crop failure. Not here, I trust. I want to help you be all that you can be in the service of the Kingdom...every day!

The New Testament lesson this morning leans rather heavily on the fact that a religion of outward appearances is not satisfactory. Jesus says that, come the last day, there will be those who complain vigorously about being left out saying, "Hey, wait a minute, we came to your covered-dish dinners; we even sat through the preaching beforehand...and you have got to admit what a sacrifice THAT was. What do you mean we don't qualify?" Jesus' word is NO...and the door will be closed.

But there is something else about this passage that strikes me. There is more to it than simply an affirmation that there will be some who do not make it. You see, just before Luke reports this exchange about how EXCLUSIVE the kingdom will be, he has the Lord giving two brief but comforting parables about how INCLUSIVE it will be: the one about the mustard seed that grew to such a size in a garden that ALL SORTS of birds were able to nest in it, and the one about that little bit of yeast that had such power that it finally permeated ALL the dough. YES, the Lord seems to be saying, "The kingdom will be EXclusive, but it will be far more INclusive than you might ever imagine."

There is something else that gives me that message: Jesus' reference to three of the greatest names of the faith...Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To the Jews, those were the BIG three, the ones the Almighty singled out for Moses at the burning bush and for all of us ever since as we hear, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." That gave them a special importance.

Now, most of the time when we run across those three names, we simply think of three great patriarchs, three figures of history, a father, a son and a grandson who have been consistently revered by people of faith. But if we consider them individually, we find something remarkable...and it is this: any God who could love THOSE three, and include those three in the Kingdom, could love and include just about anyone.

Consider them for a moment. Abraham...a pioneer...a nomad...a trailblazer...a man of itching feet. He was a fighter when that was called for, but not one to go out and LOOK for battles. He really seemed to be a pretty GOOD fellow, as our standards of goodness go.

But the most important thing about Abraham was that he was devoutly religious. His relationship with God was so strong that he could even consider offering his own son as a sacrifice simply because his God asked him to. That is devotion. And the result is that, even though we might expect to encounter the phrase over and over again throughout scripture, Abraham is the only man the Bible ever calls "the friend of God." No one else, just Abraham. "I am the God of Abraham."

Then there is Isaac. Where his father Abraham was an adventurer, a pioneer, Isaac was a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, a stay-at-home. The only real adventures Isaac ever had in his life were when he got his wife (which he did not bring himself to do until he was forty) and the time he almost lost her to Abimilech, the king of the Philistines.

Isaac was dominated by everyone. He was overshadowed by his father, henpecked by his wife, and hoodwinked by his son. But, you know, nothing ever seemed to upset him. He was a quiet man, mild of manner and gentle of heart.

As far as religion was concerned, Isaac would have to be called a conservative. He broke no new ground of faith. He was content to worship his father's God, obedient to what he had been taught as a boy. He was really rather bland theologically. But there must have been something worthwhile about him. After all, the children of Israel heard, "I am the God of Isaac."

And then there was Jacob. This one was different from either father or grandfather. Jacob was a horse trader...a businessman. He had a good head. Had he lived in our day, he would have made a fortune in used cars. He was always looking for a deal. Why, once he even offered to give God ten percent of the gross receipts if God would do all the work. Nice, if you can arrange it. Jacob was scheming, ambitious, self-seeking, and generally one of those who was never satisfied until he got what he wanted. Jacob was a an ancient P. T. Barnum who believed, "There's a sucker born every minute."

But there is something else about Jacob. In spite of all his tendencies toward being a scoundrel, he had a certain religious sensitivity. Do you remember the story of the midnight wrestling match between Jacob and the angel?(1) The angel said "Let go," but Jacob said, "No, not until you bless me." The angel replied, "If I bless you, I will have to make you lame," but Jacob said, "Go ahead...I may go through life lame, but I will go through life blessed." Jacob had a head on him. "I am the God of Jacob."

Abraham, the pioneer; Isaac, the stick-in-the-mud; Jacob, the wheeler-dealer. Three men, three totally different men...but all who had the same God and all who WERE HAD BY the same God. All were religious, but each in their own way: Abraham, the devout one; Isaac, the conservative one; Jacob, the occasionally sensitive one. "I am the God of Abraham, the adventurer, the God of Isaac, the gentle man, and even the God of Jacob, that lovable old rascal.

Think back now, for a moment, to what we said at the beginning about you being in church and the church being in you. Of those to whom that applies, there are lots of differences. There are Abrahams...they come and sit in the front - their commitment is so deep that their presence at worship is virtually automatic. There are Isaacs...they get here early so they can sit in the back - relatively automatic for them too. And there are Jacobs...they sit everywhere - they are committed to the Lord and the church, but sometimes, the commitment gets buried in the hurly-burly of day to day living. The Lord says, "I am the God of every one of them. They have always been there, and I need them all."

They have always been there, haven't they? There have always been and women who struck out as spiritual pioneers, people who have run interference for God. There was Paul, that devout Pharisee of the Pharisees, who broke the bonds of Jewish legalism that threatened to strangle early Christianity. There was Luther who led the battle to reform and cleanse the church he loved. There was Wesley who led a Spirit-filled revival that historians credit with saving England from bloody revolution. There have always been Abrahams.

Of course, not all have become famous. There might be spiritual pioneers that you know of that few others do...people who have devoted their adventurous spirits to the things of God. When religion is stale, they reform it; when it's dull, they revive it; when it's torn, they repair it. Like the Abraham of old, faith is the controlling principle of life.

"I am still the God of Abraham."

To be sure, there have always been Isaacs. They are not well known. They could not be; there are too many of them. They help to carry chairs; they clean up the tables; they fry the chicken; they will even sing in a choir if there is someone next to them who will help them stay in tune. The Isaacs are the backbone of the church.

I recall hearing about one such Isaac. It was told by that good Scot Presbyterian, Dr. James Cleland who taught preaching at Duke.(2) It seems there was a choir in Dr. Cleland's boyhood church that was so bad that people came to hear it. Each week, that choir reached a new high in low. People in the pews sat amazed, amused, puzzled. Finally, one Sunday, an eighty-year-old man in the congregation...old Archie...took his hymn book and walked down the aisle and sat in the choir; he knew that choir needed help and he was willing to offer it. Well, old Archie must have inspired some folks, and more and more decided to do the same. Archie had started a reformation. Dr. Cleland reports that just three years later, that choir (with different personnel) won first place in their division in the Glasgow Music Festival.

I can think of another Isaac...a young man who grew up hoping to be a school teacher, but God called him to the ministry. He was painfully shy, and wondered how in the world he would ever be able to stand up in front of a congregation to preach from week to week...but he did. Like Isaac, he was religiously conservative; he broke no new theological ground. He was committed to what he had learned to be the faith of his fathers. He never became famous; he just did his job, a job that took such a toll on that shy personality that he had to take nerve medicine each week before he entered the pulpit - for 35 years he did that. I knew that Isaac. He was my Dad.

"I am still the God of Isaac."

I hardly need to say it but, obviously, there are still plenty of Jacobs around...folks who are spiritual mixtures... alternately rascally and religious. They are God's beloved scamps. And the Lord can use them; the church has always needed people with good heads on their shoulders, and no one would ever say that Jacob did not have a good head.

Augustine was a Jacob. He had any number of religious experiences before he became a Christian. But even once he had made the decision to follow Jesus, he was not quite ready to give it his all. He refused for a long time to be baptized because the church at that time believed that sins committed after baptism would not be forgiven; Augustine had some sinning to do and he did not want his faith to get in the way. He was more than a bit of a lady-killer. He once prayed, "Lord, make me chaste...but not yet." Augustine was a Jacob.

John Newton was a Jacob. Newton was so wild in his youth that England was not big enough to contain him. He became a slave trader, and eventually dipped so low that he became the slave of a slave himself, and like the prodigal son, one day came to himself, and realized how awful his life had become. He turned his heart over to Jesus and to this day, we celebrate that conversion with him as we sing,

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

Newton was a Jacob.

A story came out of World War II.(3) A reporter on the west coast happened to pass by a pay phone one night and saw a GI sobbing uncontrollably into the mouthpiece, and standing beside him a cabby, feeding coins into the phone every time the connection was about to be cut. The reporter asked the cab driver after the scene was played out what had happened. The man said, "Oh, the kid got into my cab, so homesick that he just couldn't hold back the tears. He was from Tennessee; he hadn't talked to his momma in months; he had no money, so I thought I would help him out."

The reporter said, "That's a great human interest story. Do you mind if I write this up?"

But the cabby begged off, "Naw, don't put anything in the paper about that. It happens all the time. I always keep a supply of lead slugs on hand for whenever I need `em."

That is Jacob. When it comes to truth, sometimes lead; but when it comes to heart, solid gold.

Yes, there are Jacobs in the church...not because of their "scampiness," but in spite of it. As Augustine wrote when his commitment finally became complete, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee."

"I am still the God of Jacob."

They are all here...Abraham, the devout; Isaac, the conservative; Jacob, the good head that is occasionally sensitive. There is great value in that; the church needs them all, and especially right here, right now, that Dorchester is in a time of transition and preparing for the new adventure of faith that God has in store here. Granted, we do not need everything about Abraham and Isaac, and especially Jacob, but we do need what they can properly offer.

Which one is in you? Is it Abraham? Are you a spiritual adventurer? Can you be a pioneer, blaze new trails, fight the battles that need to be fought? Do you have the potential for being a spiritual giant? Is Abraham in there? Then let him out so he can get busy. "I am the God of Abraham."

Or is it Isaac? Are you one who would be uncomfortable with forging out on your own, breaking new ground, but very comfortable in doing whatever you could to keep things going? You might not be the go-get-`em leader type, but are you the rock-solid supporter type? Is Isaac in you? Then let him out so he can go to work. "I am the God of Isaac."

Or is it Jacob in there? Saint and sinner at the same time? You are not alone. Is there a shrewd business sense in there? Let it out put it to work in the name of Jesus. Is there a head for making a buck? Then let it out and put that head to work in developing support for the world-wide mission of the church. Is there ambition in there? Then let it out and baptize it by being ambitious for the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the church. "I am the God of that loveable old rascal, Jacob."

That is good news, isn't it? Yes, indeed! The word from above is, "I am the God of all sorts of different folks...Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob... YOUR God, no matter what your name."


1. Genesis 32:24-31

2. The story comes from a sermon from Dr. Cleland preached some years ago in the Duke University Chapel which, as it happens, is the inspiration for this particular effort.

3. ibid.

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