Sermon: The Perfect Gift
The Perfect Gift
(Text: Genesis 27:1-35; Revelation 1:1-7)
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 11-26-2017)
Thanksgiving Day is over. Advent is a week away, but even now the Christmas rush is on. Many a tongue and wallet hang limp from the Black Friday and pre-Cyber Monday sales, while others are invigorated by this spate of nationally sanctioned in-store and on-line shopping. A few folks I know boast of already having finished their Christmas shopping, while some have not even thought about starting.
As Advent soon arrives and then Christmas approaches, all shoppers face the same dilemma. What is the perfect gift to give to people whose closets, basements, and attics already bulge with stuff?
The story from Genesis today deals with a related question to just what is the perfect gift. In ancient Israelite tradition, the blessing, or in Hebrew, the berekah, of the father is a gift given to the eldest male heir and confers on him the promise of vitality, health, longevity, fertility, and numerous progeny. There is no more perfect gift given by Hebrew parent to child than the parent’s berekah.
The writer of Genesis tells a story of a stolen berekah, the perfect gift unintentionally given. As the story goes, Isaac’s long life is ending, his eyes are thick with cataracts and he is left with only touch and smell to make sense of his life. Isaac, bearing a name that means “s/he laughed,” Isaac’s wife and younger son will have the last laugh on the old man. In a comical scene that includes Jacob wearing animal skins to make him as hairy as apish Esau and then lowering his voice to mimic Esau’s timbre, Jacob asks for his father’s final berekah.
The scene turns to tragicomedy as the story shifts from old Isaac saying, “The smell of my son is like the smell of open country blessed by the Lord” to then pronouncing his one and only berekah on the wrong twin, on the surplanter, another Hebrew meaning of the name, Jacob.
Though we now largely reject the patriarchal ways of ancient Israel and do not see a parent’s blessing as some sort of religious rabbit foot, yet, even still, in many ways, you and I know how hard we strive for a parent’s or grandparent’s approval.
As we near a season with a focus on giving, the story of Jacob and Isaac draws attention to the power of parents and other caring adults to be instruments of God’s cherished berekah for both scoundrels and saints.
Dr. Rachel Renman learned the power of blessing as a child. She writes: “On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house, [we would have tea.] After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming.
“When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, `Come Neshume-le’. Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for me and for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories – Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah – to watch over me.
“These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. It seemed there was always more to know. It was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, `And what happened to the other two points?’ I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.
“My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, `Neshume-le’, which means `beloved little soul’. There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever” (Rachel Renman, My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp. 22-23).
This is an odd day on the calendar of the Christian church. Traditionally called “Christ the King Sunday,” this day recalls those odd exchanges between Pilate and Jesus, when Pilate queried, “So you are the king of the Jews?” and Jesus hauntingly responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.” This day also reminds us of a boisterous crowd insisting, “We have no king but Caesar!” Finally, it is a day that calls to mind the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”
Each year, Christ the King Sunday closes out the church year. This Sunday, it ends a year that the church has sat at the feet of Matthew’s Gospel and now sits peering over into a new church year that will begin next week on the first Sunday of Advent.
As a southern Presbyterian boy, I was not raised with such strange sounding seasons as Advent, Epiphany, Lent or Pentecost. Those were seasons for Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics. Over the years, though, I have come to appreciate the way the church views time. It is through the special prism of God’s own “Neshume-le,” God’s beloved little soul, who was born into poverty and yet on the cross was crowned king by God.
Christ the King conjures up images of scepters and thrones and places of privilege, mostly male, authoritarian images, but the king we meet in Jesus resembles more the gentle grandfather of Dr. Renman, the one who gave the gift of blessing to his granddaughter and God knows to how many others.
Once we know ourselves to be blessed by God, that in Christ you and I are God’s beloved Neshume-le, then life moves from black and white to color. Once blessed by God, we see blessing not as something to be given away once and after careful reserve like old Isaac, but something that increases as often as we give it away, as we heap it upon children and grandchildren and upon every child, youth, college student, young adult, middle-yeared or aging child of God.
People new to church will often ask me, “Why baptize?” I tell them that it is not magic but it is magical. It is a celebration of the God who called Jesus “Neshume-le” and in whose name we bless young, middle aged, and old in the waters of baptism. In baptism, you and I are also given the name “Neshume-le” and are also given the wondrous privilege of Isaac – to bestow blessing, but not with eyes clouded by tradition or prejudice about whom we can bless.
Just imagine what it would mean if every person baptized received a verbal blessing not only from a pastor on the day of their baptism, but felt the palm of blessing from elders and choir members, Sunday School teachers and every member for days and weeks and years after the fact? What would it mean if we not only celebrated birthdays here, but celebrated baptism days as well, a celebration each year to remember that in God’s eyes, and by Christ’s mercy, we are already enough?
What an incomparable and immeasurable blessing God has given us. Over the next days and weeks, search the web, browse through the catalogs, visit the stores, you will never find a more perfect gift than the one God has already given us, the gift of God’s blessing, God’s permission to believe that we are enough. It is a gift that grows each time we give it away.
Looking for that perfect gift? Look no more.