During this recent economic downturn, a lot of us have been cutting back on things— eating out less, delaying the purchase of a car, maybe even trying to downsize the house.
Some people are wisely cutting back on using credit cards and are opting for “stay-cations” rather than traversing to an exotic destination.
What we Americans don’t seem to be cutting back on, however, is the dream of striking it rich but doing it the
easy way— easy, that is, if you’re lucky.
Amid hard times, people are skipping the bank for financial advice, and instead, they’re heading to the local convenient store to snag a hand full of lottery tickets.
A 2011 report by USA Today indicated that more than half the states with lotteries saw an increase in sales during the recession.
In 2012, total revenue from state lotteries was up from the previous year by $1 billion.
It seems that in desperate times, more people are relying on “Lady Luck” to be their financial adviser more so than Dave Ramsey.
Now, if you are one who enjoys scratchers now and then, or if you are like me and buy lottery tickets when the Mega-Millions jackpot eclipses 500 million—because anything less isn’t really worth my dollar investment—then don’t think that I am about to unleash biblical judgments on you—because I do that so much anyway, right?
But I will say that if you have lottery habits like Albert Atwood of Dallas, Texas, then maybe you need to seek out some kind of intervention.
Atwood spends $100 a week playing the lottery. He reasons such a habit saying, “Someday, somebody is going to win, I just hope it’s me. I suppose I’d be a heap better off if I saved this money, but everybody has dreams.”
Atwood has dreams—and he hopes that someday his dreams will come true.
Do the math on what saving a $100 a week in a solid, even low risk investment vehicle might add up to over time and it’s pretty easy to understand why some people believe the lottery is a taxation on hope.
But it’s not just states these days that have these voluntary taxations on hope depots.
Some cottage industries have popped up and claim that they can actually help people increase their luck.
Take luckology.com for example. It is a web site that defines the term “luckology” as “the ability to successfully attract good luck and turn bad luck into good luck over and over again.”
Ric Wallace, the site’s proprietor, says the formula for being lucky is Belief + Attitude + An Item of luck = Results.
If you just believe and think positively, plus rub your lucky squirrel charm (“squirrels” because winning allows you to “squirrel away” your mega-winnings), then the millions you seek will be yours.
Wallace claims to have won several lotteries and contests using his method.
“Luckology” is nothing new, and is really just another term for a philosophy that’s been around nearly as long as humanity.
Pantheistic religions believed the gods used fortune and misfortune to manipulate human lives; thus, it was best to please the gods who might give you fortune and avoid ticking off the ones who could give you a run of bad luck.
Then, as now, people in crisis tend to organize their theological worldview around the immediacy of the lucky break and paying attention to the gods of fortune or luck, whether their altars are in a casino or at the counter of a convenience store. All this is what Wayne Oates calls a “secular religion.”
Oates’ authored a book entitled “Luck: A Secular Religion”, where he traces the human fascination with luck and challenges it as being, well, bankrupt.
Oates defines luck as “confidence” that is, “having faith in fate, in chance, in cleverness, in figuring out probabilities.”
He writes, “All are focused upon the immediate time situation, upon the here and now. All are distinctly dependent upon human existence apart from any fellowship with, or interdependence on, the supernatural or the everlasting realities of life. Luck is an isolating belief, where the individual stands over and against the community around them.”
And I like this last line he writes, “Luck is, as the old saying goes, ‘the idol of the idle.’”
In our text for today we encounter Abraham, who certainly could have considered himself to be the luckiest person in the world.
After all, God had chosen him, out of all the people living, and gave him the patriarchal jackpot.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great… I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
God will curse anyone who curses you! Who wouldn’t want to win that lottery!?
In a world where a man’s fruitful family line and divine favor were the equivalent of hitting the Powerball Lottery once a week for the rest of your life, Abraham’s “luckology” would seem to have been working pretty well, especially given the fact that he and his wife were old and beyond childbearing years, or as Paul puts it in Romans 4 saying Abraham was “as good as dead”.
The miracle of Isaac’s birth was a giddy prospect that made both Abraham and Sarah laugh out loud, at first doubting and then embracing their incredible fortune.
God will teach Abraham, however, that luck has nothing to do with his fortune, his prosperity, or the birth of his son.
Unlike the gods of the pantheistic Canaanites, in whose land Abraham wanders, God isn’t doling out arbitrary blessings and curses, luck and “unluck,” but is instead focused on obedience and what we call “providence”—the blessings and favor of God given to the children of God.
Our text for today, the “binding of Isaac,” as it’s known among rabbis, is a lesson in radical dependence on God, and not Lady Luck, as the real provider of all we need.
God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.”
God said to Abraham, take the greatest blessing in your life, and go kill him.
Those words had to have cut Abraham to the heart. The son he’d waited for was now being demanded from him.
It is a story that makes every heart cringe at its unthinkable-ness, and it is a text that makes every preacher squirm when it comes up in the lectionary. Some people in a similar situation might think of it as the day their luck ran out.
Abraham, however, doesn’t seem to flinch. He saddles up and sets off to do what God tells him.
“On the third day” of the journey, Abraham identifies his destination and, despite knowing what he’s been called to do, tells his servants to wait while he and the boy go up on the mountain to worship and says, “then we will come back to you.”
It’s a strange statement for a man who’s facing the prospect of killing his own son as a sacrifice to God. It’s apparent that even on the cusp of a tragic ending, Abraham has faith that God will somehow provide.
As they walk up the mountain, Abraham tells Isaac, who is curious about the whole project, that God will provide “the lamb” for the offering. And why not, God had already provided Abraham with his son, and now Abraham believes that God will provide for him again, even to the point of making sense of this nonsensical act of sacrifice.
It is easy to only focus on the nonsense of this text and miss the model of faith displayed by Abraham.
Abraham has walked with God and has seen God provide for him over and over again. He trusts in and relies on God, rather than on luck, to sustain him.
And because he does, Abraham is able to put everything on the line and demonstrate a radical dependence on God, even offering God the most valued part of his life.
Now, we know how the story ends. At the critical point, when Abraham is about to carry out what God has asked the angel of the Lord stops him. A ram is caught in a nearby thicket, and the sacrifice is provided, and because of this Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide.”
What was thought to be a cruel twist of fate is turned into a lesson on God’s providence—of how God will always provide—on how God will always be looking out for us, our future not for harm, but for real, true hope.
Wayne Oates believes that if luck is a secular faith, the belief in providence is a sacred one.
He writes, “The sacred option for dealing with the givens of life springs from a steadfast faith in the providence of God. A believer in providence, although not able to see the hand of God at work in a given situation of one’s lot in life, nevertheless holds to the faith that God will deliver him or her from any and all circumstance according to the distinct purpose God has for his or her life. Therefore, the believer can endure the oppression of the present moments of life, live by faith not knowing where he or she is going, while looking forward, as Abraham did, ‘to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ (Hebrews 11:10).
This faith in providence is lived in a community of faith, not in isolation or in attempts at self-sufficiency.”
Faith in luck is a lonely faith, a fatalistic submission to chance.
Faith in God and God’s providence, however, is faith in a relationship with the one who promises to supply what we need, when we need it, “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Abraham believed in God’s providence and because he did he knew that God would not allow his son to be harmed.
God is the one who provides, even to the point of sacrificing God’s own Son for us.
If luck is all about the individual pursuit of everything we think we want, then providence is about accepting the promise that God supplies everything we need—and not just for us, but for all God’s people.
While luck seeks to obtain, providence invites us to share.
Luck buys lottery tickets. Providence is a faith filled investment in a community.
Abraham was no “luckologist”, nor are we, because we are people of faith, and our faith tells us that we don’t need luck.
We don’t need lady luck because we have already won everything we will ever need.
We are not lucky.
Rather we are blessed—blessed with the Providence of God.