Big Idea: God accomplishes his purposes through his people despite their sins.
If God is good, why are his people often so disappointing?
That’s the question all of us have to answer. We answer it personally when we’re hurt by other Christians or by the church. But we also have to answer it when we look at the many blemishes in church history, and many of the scandals that rock the church today.
In 2008, John Dickson, the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity, was part of a debate. The motion under consideration: We’d be better off without religion. Dickson was arguing against the motion.
Despite his best efforts, he lost the debate. The 1200 people who were part of the crowd voted overwhelmingly in favor of the motion: that we would be better off without religion.
We have experienced a significant shift in the perception of the value of religion, in general, and Christianity in particular. Twenty or so years ago a frequent complaint against the faith was that it was too moralistic, holier-than-thou, or goody two-shoes. Today it is just as common to hear people say that the problem with the church is that it is immoral, violent, and hateful…
To say that the church has an “image problem” does not quite capture it. Christianity has had two millennia to win the affection and confidence of the world. Yet, for a large number of us today, this venerable tradition deserves neither our love nor our trust.
And no wonder. There’s so much sin and darkness in the church, both in history and today. When people accuse the church of hypocrisy, it’s hard not to see their point. And then there’s the hurt that many of us have experienced in our own interactions with Christians and the church. We should sweep none of this under the rug.
As Trevin Wax writes:
There are sex abuse scandals rocking virtually every denomination, even churches not connected to a denomination. There’s a lot of questioning or wrestling with—or even abandoning—fundamental Christian doctrines and ethical and moral stances. We’ve got examples of toxic leadership poisoning churches. The number of well-known, respected Christian leaders being discredited by falling into some kind of sin—it’s been like dominoes the past decade. And then there are the questions of what faithfulness looks like in politics and how we discern truth from error in a world of social media battles…
It’s hard to find one sphere of the church across the board right now where we’d all say, “Yep, that’s really healthy and that’s going good.” All this stuff is killing is our witness.
So what do we do with this? Surprisingly, today’s passage is going to help us with that a lot.
We’re in a year-long series as we work through the entire Bible from beginning to end. Right now we’re in the first book of the Bible called Genesis, which lays the foundation for everything that follows.
So far in Genesis, we’ve seen:
- That God created the world to be good, but that we broke it through sin, and that sin has corrupted everything.
- We’ve also seen that God chose a family through which he’d work to undo the damage that sin caused, but that story so far that’s full of failure. But God is still faithful to work through them.
Here’s the main question that we face from Genesis 12 on. God curses the serpent in Genesis 3 right after sin entered the world:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.
This is a key moment. God promises that the offspring of the deceived will be at war with the deceiver. They’ll be at war. It becomes clear in Genesis 12 that Abram is the family God chose who will continue this battle. From Genesis 12 on, we see five generations of this family. In every generation we ask, “Will the people in this section carry on the family lineage of the woman that will lead to the ultimate deliverer who will decisively defeat the serpent and all the effects of sin?” (Ian Vaillancourt)
Can God really work through this family and fulfill his promises? Can he really work through these people as he unfolds his plan to reverse the curse of sin? These are the questions we’re supposed to ask as we read the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and more.
As we look at these people, we might ask ourselves the same question as well, even though we’re in a very different part of the story. Now that Jesus has come and crushed Satan, can he really use the church to spread the gospel despite all its missteps and flaws?
And here’s what we discover as we look for the answer in this part of the story. Two lessons:
God’s people are far more disappointing than we might expect.
That comes across so clearly in this section of the story that we have to face it. It’s so common to read the Bible looking for moral examples to imitate. You just don’t find that in the Bible in general, or in this section in particular. Here’s what you discover: God’s people are far more disappointing than we might expect.
As Nathan showed us last week, the bar has already been set pretty low in Abram’s life. Abram (later Abraham) kept facing the question of whether he would trust God to accomplish his promises, and he kept trying to take matters into his own hands. He trusted God, but he made many mistakes.
And then we get into this section’s generations, and you can summarize what you find in two words: family dysfunction.
Let’s set the scene:
- When: sometime around 1900 BC
- Where: in Canaan and Egypt
- Who: The action primarily focuses on two generations of Abraham’s descendants: Jacob and his children
- Main Question: Will God work through these people to keep his promises?
A lot of the action focuses on a man named Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. You get an idea of what to expect from his name: Jacob means deceiver. And you’re not disappointed as you read these chapters:
- In chapter 30, we see that Jacob’s relationship with his wives is characterized by jealousy and manipulation.
- And that’s not to mention his relationship with his father-in-law, which ends very badly with Jacob coming out on top.
- But that’s nothing compared to his relationship with his brother. Their relationship is so bad that when he meets his brother after a couple of decades of estrangement, it becomes the biggest crisis of his life. It’s so bad that he fears for his life.
It’s messy, chaotic, and discouraging.
And then you get to the next generation, Jacob’s children. Here’s what you find with them: family rivalry, attempted murder, sexual immorality, and more.
You do see glimmers of hope. One example is Joseph, one of Jacob’s children, who acts with integrity even when he experiences all kinds of injustice. But even Joseph isn’t the hero of the story.
Here’s the point we’re supposed to realize: God didn’t choose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they’re good. We don’t have these stories in our Bible as good examples, or heroes to emulate. I love how one preacher put it. This is so important. It will completely change the way you read the Bible:
When both liberal and conservative people read … the Bible – so many of them get so upset, because they say, "Look at these people! Look at what they're doing! These are supposed to be moral exemplars, aren't they? What kind of people are these? I don't want to read about this!"
If you ever feel that way about reading the Bible, it shows that you don't understand the message of the Bible. You're imposing your understanding of the message on the Bible. You're assuming that the message of the Bible is "God blesses and saves those who live morally exemplary lives." That's not the message of the Bible. The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.
Read that over and over again. The message of the Bible isn’t that God blesses those with morally exemplary lives. “The message of the Bible is that God persistently and continuously gives his grace to people who don't ask for it, don't deserve it, and don't even fully appreciate it after they get it.”
We shouldn’t be surprised when God’s people disappoint us. Quite the opposite. We should expect it. Of course, we should never justify or excuse bad behavior, but we shouldn’t be surprised either.
As Tim Keller puts it, the message of the Bible isn’t that we must clean up our lives for God to save us. That means “that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually.”
Never put your faith in a Christian. Never be surprised by failure and sin. Expect brokenness among God’s people. Expect to be disappointed.
Don’t let that make you cynical. In fact, realize that about yourself. You are weak and sinful and flawed too.
But look with me at one more lesson we learn from these chapters:
God accomplishes his purposes through his people despite their sins.
The question we ask in Genesis is: can God really work through these people? I mean, they’re a mess!
To answer this question, let’s just look quickly at two stories.
I mentioned that Jacob faced the biggest crisis of his life when he was about to meet his brother for the first time in 20 years. His life was in danger. The night before, God meets him and wrestles with him all night. For the first time in his life, Jacob can’t deceive his way out of this predicament. At the end of the wrestling match, he leaves an injured but changed man. God searched for him and brought him to the point where he couldn’t win or dominate. Look what happened:
And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:27-28)
Jacob was given a new name. No longer is he Jacob the deceiver. Now he becomes Israel, which means “God fights.” At his lowest point, as he surrendered to God, he gets a new identity, and God promises to fight for him.
Have you got to this place? Have you realized that you have to get to the point where you can’t finagle with God, you can’t overpower God, you can’t impress God, you can’t win over him, but he can bless you? That’s what coming to Jesus is all about. God will give you a new identity despite your past. God uses people like Jacob who realize they can’t overpower God and instead get a blessing from him not because they’re worthy but because God is gracious.
Can God really work through Jacob? Yes, not because Jacob is worthy, but because God gives sinners new identities when they finally come to him.
One more quick story. Joseph, Jacob’s son, is betrayed. But God arranges circumstances so that Joseph becomes second-in-command in Egypt so that, when famine comes, God’s chosen people are preserved. Joseph says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
God can take all the injustices done to you, all the dysfunction in your past, and accomplish his purposes through them. God is good at working through even the worst circumstances to accomplish his purposes in the world.
Friends, God’s people can be disappointing. But I’m here to tell you very good news: God knows how to use failures and disappointments. God accomplishes his purposes through his people despite their sins.