Every Place on which You Set Foot Shall Be Yours

Monroe Scholar Candidates' Chapel
Westmont College
February 11, 2005

As prospective students, you may have heard of Spring Sing, Westmont’s spring semester follies. Well, I’ve been working on a sketch for this year’s Spring Sing. It’s a reality show based on Genesis. Here’s my pitch:

Intro: Attention, Osbournes fans – there’s a new family moving to your neighborhood! Ripped from the scriptures, the hot new reality miniseries The Abrahamsons is the Christian alternative to Ozzy, Sharon, and their brooding gothic pagan brats. And the bizarre dysfunctional hijinks of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau are good clean fun for the whole family, because you can’t cuss in Hebrew!

Scene one begins with a flashback of Isaac going multiplatinum, getting rich, and bagging sexy London girl Rebekah. Then the troubles start, as Isaac plays favorites among his twin boys. He wants to send his athletic darling Esau to Cambridge and leave Jacob the antisocial momma’s boy stuck with lifetime camel duty. But Jacob turns the tables on the hairy jock, tricking him into trading his college fund for a deep-dish pizza. Sucka!

Scene two: Esau rocks the Abrahamson house by marrying a Yank! The tension explodes when the newlyweds host Christmas dinner and Judith reveals that she likes country music and voted for George W. Bush. Real World is the Cosby Show compared to Bible world!

Scene three: Isaac’s penchant for wearing sunglasses indoors backfires as Rebekah gives her favorite son Jacob an Extreme Makeover and Jacob steals Esau’s golden future from right under daddy’s nose. The suspense is riveting as the doddering dad almost clues into the deception. Our hidden camera captures Esau as he walks in just a minute too late to unravel Rebekah’s ruse. “Isaac and Esau, you’ve been X’ed!”

Scene four opens with everyone worried Esau will go off the rails. Jacob goes on tour and hits the big time, emptying manipulative uncle Laban’s house of both his estate and his daughters. This is not only the ultimate Wife Swap – it’s The Apprentice, The Bachelor, and Blind Date all in one! Meanwhile, Esau struggles to get back in the family’s good graces by adding a cousin to his harem and making up with Jacob. Elimidate in reverse! Will it be enough to get Esau back in the game? Don’t try this at home, kids!

Jacob plays family Fear Factor in scene five’s semifinal showdown. The new superstar finally gets a life. He busts his family out of the in-laws’ house, faces down Laban, faces off with an angel, and faces up to his washed-up twin brother. It’s a focus on the family James Dobson doesn’t want you to know about!

The sketch closes as Esau is out of the picture and Jacob’s got the juice. The future is bright – unless his thirteen wacked out celebrity kids sink his career! To be continued....

Think that script will get past the administration?

They might reject it for not being funny. But they can’t accuse me of being disrespectful to the patriarchs. Look at Genesis 24-26 sometime. There is a lot there you won’t hear about in youth group or on Sunday morning. Would you want Isaac and Rebekah playing you off your twin brother? Esau is, to use the biblical term, a fool. Would you want to live with him? Jacob handles Laban’s cheating by outcheating him. Would you do business with him? Rachel steals her father’s pagan idols and constructs a rather earthly lie so she can keep them. Would you trust your kids in Sunday School to her? This little tribe really is a lot closer to the Osbournes than the Holy Family. Would you want these people inheriting the earth?

And what kind of God chooses them to bless?

Yet they do inherit the earth. Doesn’t that call for respect? “All who curse you shall be cursed,” Isaac says to Jacob, “and all who bless you shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:29). Shouldn’t we play it safe here?

God’s blessings on this mixed-up family do call for respect. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And neither God nor the Bible criticizes them in the way we might like. So maybe comparing Isaac to Ozzy is a little edgy. Yet I think the Bible subtly invites us to do just that (as you will see). And I think we should accept that invitation, because our culture often confuses love and respect with acquiescence and neglect. We tend to let things be as they are. If God blesses Jacob, then we don’t criticize Jacob.

This is a very convenient, comfortable form of “respect,” because refusing to judge messed-up patriarchs, kings, prophets, and apostles gets us off the hook for our own failures. Reality TV is appealing because we can identify with the characters. Their similarities affirm us, their virtues inspire us – and above all their failings excuse us. I may have my quirks, but at least I’m not off my rocker like Ozzy. I may be a little infelicitous with my language now and then, but at least I’m not a total potty mouth. Ozzy’s kids are slackers; mine will go to Westmont. He is a fool, so I must be wise. He is going to hell for sure, so maybe I’ll be OK!

The Christian equivalent of reality TV is not so much a skit with Isaac and Rebekah as Ozzy and Sharon, but a sermon in which poor waffling Peter or doubting Thomas practically becomes our patron saint. Heard any such sermons? I have. “Isn’t God gracious to save losers like these? Isn’t God gracious to save losers like us too? Hallelujah!”

That is partly right. Grace is the heart of the gospel. The same Father who blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has blessed us too, just as we are, warts and all. Our hope lies in always remembering that. But too often the story ends there, with us blessed but still messed up. That leaves the whole story of grace still untold.

This kind of “respect” is a recipe for complacency. You know how it generally works in our churches: I describe my life in terms of a dramatic story of falling short, realizing it, and being forgiven – and I can leave it at that! I end my personal exodus story with the victory song that comes in Exodus 15. I tell other disciples’ stories the same way: Paul relies on the Law to be righteous, meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, and becomes a Christian. Augustine tries everything, finally finds Christianity, and is born again. Martin Luther tries to save himself, can’t, and discovers that justification is a gift received by faith alone. John Wesley goes to a meeting, reads Luther’s testimony, and his heart is warmed. And so on.

We wind up our stories right after these turning points, adding brief epilogues that historians will tell you are rather selective. All these people then become evangelists and go around spreading the good news so that others can have the same experiences. They continue to enjoy God’s forgiveness as they stumble and backslide, as well as God’s affirmation when they don’t. What they don’t really do is continue to change.

After what we take to be the climax of these stories, we shift our focus to some other conversion story that looks a lot like the last one. We don’t say much at all about how Paul deals with the thorn in his flesh that God won’t remove, how Augustine handles the growing awareness of his grave weaknesses, what Luther does with recurring depression, or how Wesley endures his unhappy marriage. We channel surf with the lives of the saints. The rest of their lives are too boring, too unsettling – and too challenging.

The same habits that lead me to put down Augustine’s Confessions in the middle of the book have led me to read Genesis and the first half of Exodus and marvel at God’s grace in spite of my sins, and stop there. What about the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy?

OK, maybe it is because the last seventy percent of the Torah is a lot less entertaining. Who would watch a reality TV show about Levitical priests at the tabernacle?

Well, I think these stories’ conclusions bore us precisely because they challenge us in ways we don’t want to be challenged. The last third of Confessions makes me drowsy for the same reason that the service of the tabernacle, the wilderness wanderings, and the Law of Moses make my eyes glaze over. I would rather start over again in Genesis or Augustine’s adolescence because then I wouldn’t have to face the long hard work of changing.

God, on the other hand, is determined to take us not only through the short, turbulent process of changing the direction of our lives, but also through the long, hard process of pursuing that new direction to its ultimate destination. That is what kind of God chooses basket cases like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To see us all the way through, God supplies us with what we need and purges us of what we must not have.

For a picture of that, let’s fast forward way past Genesis 36, where I left Jacob and his chaotic brood, to one of the rambling passages patient readers endure before the action picks up again in Joshua. These are among Moses’ parting words to Israel after forty often uneventful years of wandering in the wilderness, in Deuteronomy 11 (NRSV).

First, Moses reminds Israel of its long history of receiving God’s grace and God’s discipline:

You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always. Remember today that it was not your children (who have not known or seen the discipline of the Lord your God), but it is you who must acknowledge his greatness, his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and to all his land; what he did to the Egyptian army, to their horses and chariots, how he made the water of the Sea of Reeds flow over them as they pursued you, so that the Lord has destroyed them to this day; what he did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; and what he did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, how in the midst of all Israel the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households, their tents, and every living being in their company; for it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did.

Israel went through all that because God was not interested in another season of The Osbournes or Survivor: Palestine. Jacob and his children were not ready to inherit the land promised to Abraham. After all, God could just have sent rain to head off drought rather than sending the whole family into Egypt to see them through a famine. Instead he ran them in a five-hundred-year-long circle.

Perhaps this family of overachievers needed something other than success. Perhaps they needed to learn the distinction between wealth and daily bread. Perhaps they needed to grow into a nation in hardship rather than affluence, as America ’s “greatest generation” grew up under the twin disciplines of the Great Depression and World War II. In any event, they needed time to learn whatever lessons Egypt held for them.

Are you listening, my fellow overachievers?

Sadly, Jacob’s clans learned some wrong lessons in Egypt. Slavery trained the Hebrews to see themselves as children of oppression rather than children of the covenant. They learned to rely on their Egyptian masters’ stable agricultural economy for their rations and on Pharaoh’s armies for their protection. It is as if Egypt awakened Jacob’s inner Esau. Israel became an underachiever. Long after God had delivered them from slavery, they were still getting nostalgic for the “good old days” when all that mattered was consumption rather than trust. The exodus and the long wait under Mount Sinai were wake-up calls to live in trust rather than die in place. The water from the Rock and the manna from the sky were daily assurance that God’s providence is more than owning or being owned.

They were not enough. After its wake-up call Israel fell back asleep. When God’s chosen people came to the edge of the promised land and spies returned with stories of daunting opponents, fear won out over trust. Israel was ready to give up its birthright and return to Egypt. Esau was finally winning the battle for succession.

So God provided forty more years of discipline: life under the Torah, service in the tabernacle, manna from heaven, and orders from Moses and Aaron.

A generation later, Israel was a different people. They weren’t untested prospective students, intimidated freshmen, or wandering sophomores; they were graduating seniors. God’s challenges had made them strong; but even more importantly, God’s providence had made them ready. Listen to Moses’ next warning:

Keep, then, this entire commandment that I am commanding you today, so that you may have strength to go in and occupy the land that you are crossing over to occupy, and so that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them and to their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. For the land that you are about to enter to occupy is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sow your seed and irrigate by foot like a vegetable garden. But the land that you are crossing over to occupy is a land of hills and valleys, watered by rain from the sky, a land that the Lord your God looks after. The eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

All those years gave Israel two things – one, really – that it had always lacked: real strength, and real trust. Do you need this too?

You are a very talented group – as were Jacob and Esau. Some of you have worked unbelievably hard to get where you are. Things came hard for Jacob too, but he earned them all the same, and Jacob learned the self-assurance that powerful people have in our world. Some of you have arrived here naturally, even easily. Things came easy for Esau too, but he eventually squandered or lost them, and he learned the anxiety that insecure people have in our world.

I’m guessing that both of you are optimistic about your futures, but you are also just ever so slightly worried about what lies ahead at the next level. Will you shrewd Jacobs be able to stay ahead of the pack? Will you fortunate Esaus discover that you took your blessings for granted?

You see, turning points like the transition between high school and college expose the pitfalls of both self-assurance and insecurity.

Our culture teaches us to value self-assurance over insecurity. Yet both self-assurance and insecurity are trust killers. And trust killers are life killers. So God provided Egypt to train Israel not to rely on its own power, and then God provided the wilderness and Canaan to train Israel not to rely on anyone else’s power either, but only God’s. God raised Joseph to bring Israel down, God raised Moses to bring them up and through, and God raised Joshua to bring them in.

That is radical therapy, and it makes for a long, long story. Over four centuries in slavery, then forty years in the wilderness, then a passport into a land where next year’s income depends on next week’s weather – that combination indicates how deep the problem of mistrust is.

Mistrust is as deep a problem for you and me as for Jacob and Esau. Self-assurance and insecurity are dominant attitudes in our culture today. Many Americans spend our lives serving them. Either we gather it up, or we live it up. At your age that it looks like social status, grades, test scores, boyfriends or girlfriends, athletic and other extracurricular achievements, acceptance or rejection letters, scholarships, and adult approval. At my age it is more often financial, grounded in comparisons we make to other people’s ability to get and spend money. In my line of work, it is intellectual: Every time an article of mine is accepted, I’m on top of the world – for about two days. Every time one is rejected, I am convinced I’ve lost my edge and don’t have what it takes – for about two months. Status-seeking is the main reason America has so many dreams and nightmares, so much money and debt, so many patents and retailers, so much sex and so many eating disorders.

Most colleges want to keep you from becoming underachieving Esaus and turn you into overachieving Jacobs. They want to make you influential! well positioned! fulfilled! successful! prestigious! rich! powerful! good citizens! and so on. We prefer Jacobs to Esaus as well – because (ahem) we happen to be products of the same achievement culture that produced you – but really because we regard developing talents to be better stewardship than burying them. We will fill your years here with challenges, and we know you will rise to them. I assign graduate-level texts at my first-year honors students, and you guys handle them. I expose you to leading edge scholarship, and you engage it. I demand a lot, and you deliver.

However, our ability to do this puts us all in a very precarious position. Achievement culture is such a distraction from God’s mission, and you and we are so well adapted to it, that we are always in danger of succumbing to it. When we do, our evangelical habit of ending the Torah right after Exodus is right there to justify our prolonged spiritual immaturity as “grace.”

So at a truly Christian college that heeds the whole story of God’s grace and providence, overcoming achievement culture with the disciplining truth of Jesus Christ has to take priority. Even as we challenge each other, we have got to abandon Jacob’s pranks and Esau’s self-destructiveness and follow Israel ’s paths of righteousness. Only then will we become heirs of the Kingdom rather than clones of the culture. We have to eat bread in Egypt and manna in the wilderness to get to our milk and honey in Canaan. Without the trust that depends on God rather than on our own talents or fortunes, our achievements will just be vanity, chasing after the wind.

Some schools decide to fight achievement culture by insulating themselves from it. Their safe doctrines, rules of conduct, and easy affirmation become barriers that quarantine holy ones from the unholy world. (Do you think I’m knocking warm fuzzy Christian schools here? Actually I am thinking as much of politically correct, grade-inflated, Ivy League humanities departments.) There is a time and a place for protectionism, but we don’t think it is college. Besides, colleges make lousy shelters. By definition they are meeting places. Colleges expose people to other people, personality types to other personality types, cultures to other cultures, ideas to other ideas, disciplines to other disciplines, and traditions to other traditions. Finally, achievement culture is so pervasive that you can’t hide from it forever. It caught up with Esau and it catches up with everyone else.

Other schools respond to the pressure of achievement culture by helping parents settle for a moderate balance of achievement and security. A lot of tuition and development money nowadays comes from grandparents and parents who want to protect and empower their children at the same time. American parents want their children to meet and marry other comfortably well off children. American entrepreneurs usually prefer their children in comfortable but less risky careers, such as medicine and law. Now these professions aren’t necessarily bad! However, many people’s motives for entering them are skewed. (They are the people we don’t see on reality TV, because they’re too boring.) If God is bringing you into the legal or medical or any other profession, then great; you will be acting out of trust. But if you are just going there for sure money and prestige, then you are headed in the wrong direction. Canaan ’s economy is adventurous and plentiful, not safe and comfortable.

If you are looking for a shelter from the ways of the world, I hope Westmont will disappoint you. If you are looking for a staging ground for worldly success, I hope Westmont will disappoint you. If you are looking for a sure and pleasant future, I hope Westmont will disappoint you. Don’t get me wrong – I actually think we do rather well at all of these! You can come here and use our spirituality and ethics and campus rules as shelters. You can also come here and use our intellectual, spiritual, and physical training as nothing but a warm-up to an illustrious or sensible career. But I hope Westmont, and every Christian school on your list, makes that an empty victory. And then, after the initial disappointment, I hope we change your mind with a better vision that transforms your future.

We are delighted that you are interested in Westmont. Your achievements and your character have already impressed us. We want you to come. I want you in my classes. We hope you will enter our little Montecito wilderness for four more years of the therapy that your churches, families, and schools have already been giving you. We want to help cast out both your inner Esau and your inner Jacob, and bring out your inner Joshua.

Doing that may involve more orders, more rules, more challenges, more work, and perhaps even more boredom than you might wish for. Have you looked at our mission, statement of faith, behavioral expectations, residence life policies, general education and major requirements, and course descriptions? You should. You may not like everything you see there. But we think those disciplines will yield more trust, strength, freedom, and life than you can now imagine.

We think those things can help you navigate what will come next in your lives:

If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul— then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you. …

If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and mightier than yourselves. Every place on which you set foot shall be yours; your territory shall extend from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the Western Sea. No one will be able to stand against you; the Lord your God will put the fear and dread of you on all the land on which you set foot, as he promised you.

In these verses Moses drives his point home to those descendants of the original Osbournes. Here is the whole chapter in a nutshell: Israel, where you’re going isn’t like where you’ve been.To handle it, you can’t be the people you now are. Trusting in yourselves or inanyone else just won’t work any more. You will have to trust in me.You know you can. I got you this far. Live a life of trust in me, and I’ll get you there. Keep on living that life, and I’ll keep you there.

Israel sort of succeeds at following Moses’ advice, but mostly fails. But where Israel originally fails, Jesus later succeeds on its behalf. He fulfills the Torah’s promise by living that life of trust that fears and loves God in every way, and by including us in it by his grace. The Father takes care of the Son, supplies his Spirit, sees him through, graduates him, and puts not just the promised land but the whole world at his feet.

You see, our passage is not just about the original clans of Israel. It is finally about Jesus, who held onto the land of promise by doing the Father’s will. And by his grace it is also about the fellowship of all his holy ones. Our stories don’t end when we are born again, but only when we are all grown up in him.

Wherever you go next year, if you take on the challenges that the Lord sets before you, you can trust that God will provide. God will see you all the way through. Esau didn’t believe that, and he literally consumed his birthright (Gen. 25:29-34). Jacob only figured it out after his flocks and fortune failed him in the face of famine (Gen. 42:1-3). Now it’s your chance to learn to trust!

Your daily bread may be in the form of riches, grain in Pharaoh’s warehouse, unleavened bread, manna, or milk and honey. It may be a scholarship, family sacrifice for tuition, incomprehensible textbooks, pizza from the DC, glorious Santa Barbara sunsets, a true friend when you’re discouraged, a job offer, time to finish an exasperating assignment, or a benediction in chapel you hadn’t realized you needed. But what form your sustenance takes is less important than what it’s for: not consumption, achievement, status, fulfillment, self-protection, or comfort, but the journey. And not just any journey. Your daily bread is not for the “journey of self-discovery” of modern individualism or the “journey of self-realization” of modern progress (blech!), but only for the journey that follows Joshua and his namesake Jesus across the Jordan.

If you will love this God, walk in his ways, and hold fast to him, then as the text says, “every place on which you set foot shall be yours.” I lit on this passage because when I saw that line, I thought of you. Those words are every parent’s dream for a child. They were my parents’ dream for me when I was your age. They are my dream for my own children. We don’t want you to be transients, and we don’t want you to be emperors. All we want is for you to find your rightful place in the world. Those words promise not all the nations of the earth but covenanted territory, not naked power but strength, not sheer achievement but spiritual fruit, not just conclusion but maturity.

But you have to get there from here. You are so ready to grow up, move on, and go it alone; but you’re not yet ready to pull it off, and you will never pull it off alone. You may be ready to leave Egypt, but you are definitely not ready to enter Canaan.

However, you can pull it off someday, along with everyone else whom the Spirit holds together in Christ. Wherever you people go after high school, let it prepare you for that time when you can set your foot where you belong and everywhere you set foot can be yours. Let it help bring you not into your fortune but into your inheritance.

Knowledge, skills, connections, drive, and a snazzy diploma may help that happen. But they can’t make it happen. Only God can make it happen. And God will only make it happen God’s way. To fear and love God is the only way into Canaan.

Ready to get going?