Things Fall Apart
Gen. 4:1-16, Gen 12:1-9
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's
house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless
you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
The Bible is not a very spiritual book. It is not “spiritual” if by that word we mean
that it always leaves us with a warm, fuzzy feeling. The Bible tells all kinds of stories about
wicked people and people who make bad decisions. Sin is everywhere. But so is God and
We are inviting you to join us in a Top Forty Hits of the Bible study. Over the next
40 weeks, we are going to lead you through the Bible with passages selected to help one get a
sense of how this book holds together; and how it might help us hold together. We spend
way too much time reading one little verse, one little story at a time. It is good to do this.
But sometimes we have to take a step back to get some sense of the sweep of the books of
the Bible; the plot of the story the Scriptures tell.
There is a painting called “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt. It is as big as this wall
right there. It shows the men of a certain town in the Netherlands at the changing of the
guard. There are horses and houses and soldiers and dignitaries. They are basically life size.
Now one can go up and study a particular detail: the hoof of a horse; the collar on a
man’s suit, the brush strokes in the feathers on a hat. But at some point, to really get what
the painting is about, one has to step back. With this Top 40 Review, we want to help each
other step back and get a sense of the sweep of the story of the Bible.
For example, Genesis 1-11 is a very late addition to the written text. It was written
down after the exile in Babylon, in 587 BC. It was written down and included as a prologue;
an intentional introduction to the main story of the Torah. That main story is Abraham,
Moses and the land of promise.
The introduction works like this. The first two chapters tell two different stories
about a creation given by one God, without rival, battle, or struggle. The creation is good
and beautiful. People, who are part dirt and part divine, are placed here to take care of God’s
good earth. We are not the owners-- we are the gardeners, the caretakers. We have many
good things to enjoy, but there are limits as well. The ancient rabbis told these stories to help
us get a sense of our place in God’s creation.
The title of chapters 3 through 11 could be called “Things Fall Apart.” The good
creation does not last very long.
I expect you have seen some of those children’s letters to God.
“Dear God, Are you really invisible or is that just a trick? Lucy.”
“Dear God, I went to a wedding and two people kissed in church. Is that okay?
“Dear God, Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had
separate rooms. It worked for my brother and me. John”
Maybe Cain and Abel would not keep killing each other so much.
In the prologue, things go from good to bad to worse. People do not live within the
limits set by God. People keep acting like they are in charge, and they reap the dire
consequences of their disobedience.
Adam and Eve break the limits in the garden, and are expelled. But God puts clothes
on them as he sends them out into the world. So there is a moment of grace.
Cain gets jealous of his brother, Abel. He kills Abel, and is banished from tilling the
soil. He must flee east of Eden. Cain becomes a wander; an aimless traveler. But God puts a
mark on Cain to keep others from seeking vengeance on him. So there is a moment of grace.
And so it goes, human sin grows, and the flood comes to scrub the earth. But Noah
is placed in a boat with his family, and the animals. And life continues under the rainbow
sign. Again there is a moment of grace in a falling apart world.
In every story, there is human sin, human wickedness, God’s punishment and God’s
grace. God’s help is given in all the stories except the last. The last of the prologue is the
tower of Babel, where people are scattered all over the earth. Their language is confused so
that they may not conspire together against God.
The grace that answers the last story is the call of Abram in chapter 12. God tells
Abram to become a traveler like Cain. But Abram is not a wanderer. He is a pilgrim. “Go
from your father’s house to the land that I will show you; a land of promise. “Abram is
called to leave the home of his father and his father’s gods; to bet on the one God and to
become a follower, a traveler, a pilgrim. God has decided to bless the nations, all families
through this family. So there is a story of grace that begins here.
But Abram is no saint either. He has this promise, the one who is called the father of
faith, but he also gets scared. He gets scared when he arrives in Egypt with his beautiful wife,
Sarah. So he tells the agents of Pharaoh that she is just a sister, and she is taken to the king’s
harem. Abram lies to save his skin. God protects Sarah, but Abram does not. Later, Abram
and Sarah will grow impatient to have a child, and Abram will have a child by his wife’s maid
servant, the Egyptian Hagar, and Ishmael will be born.
Ishmael, the father of the Arabs and nomads, is the first born son of Abram. His
brother, Isaac, is born of Sarah, and he becomes the link to the 12 tribes that become
The Bible is not a very spiritual book, if by that we mean there are lots of nice role
models for us. The ancient rabbis were careful to show that God worked with all kinds of
people; and most of them are not very dependable. But they are the ones chosen by God’s
mercy and grace to bring a blessing to all the families of the earth.
The story of Scripture that we will read over the next 40 weeks is a story of human
sin answered over and over again by God’s grace.
You see, Cain keeps killing his brother, Abel, today as well: in the Sudan, in Iraq, in
Pakistan, in east L.A., in the streets of Virginia. The earth is sometimes a great blessing, and
sometimes there is a flood, a hurricane Katrina, an earthquake that destroys Port-au-Prince,
Haiti. Abram is faithful to his wife one week, and unfaithful the next in our families as well.
There are no saints in these Old Testament stories. There are just people, like you
and me. People who have to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. Things
may fall apart for us, but there is always grace lurking nearby. There are footprints in the
sand to help us know which way to turn. On any given day, we can listen for God’s voice.
We, too, can go from being a wanderer to a pilgrim; go from feeling like a motherless child
to a child of God.
Yes, things keep falling apart. But God will not let that be the final answer. God’s
grace is loose in the world as well. Every story of human sin is answered by some gracious
act of God. We are called to be pilgrims, to travel toward a land of promise, to know day by
day that God is traveling with us. We are called to follow the footprints that lead us toward
the open arms of God.
Thanks be to God.
Dr. Charles A. Summers
September 19, 2010