Epiphany 3 Sermon – The Redemption of Jacob

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
How long does it take to redeem a man? How long does it take for him to realize his redemption? With some people the light shines on them and bam, they immediately change. But for most of us, the change is a bit more gradual. For some, glacial might be a better descriptor for speed. It’s like a famous quote from St. Augustine: “God give me chastity…but not yet.” For these people, Jacob is your man.

Jacob finally gets the girl of his dreams, but also finds himself married to her (ugly) sister.**

Sibling Rivalry
But God looked with favor on Leah, because Jacob loved Rachel more, and God opened her womb. Maybe sibling rivalry from of old (R steals L’s dolls, then boyfriends). Leah gets even.
1. Rueben – “See a son” – maybe now he will love me
2. Simeon – “Heard” – because the Lord has heard that I am hated.
3. Levi – “Attached” – maybe now he will at least be attached to me
4. Judah – “Praise” – this time I will praise the Lord (she is done with Jacob).

Now the story gets really interesting, for with each marriage, Laban gives his daughter a servant Zilpah to Leah and Bilhah to Rachel.

Rachel: “Give me a child or I shall die.”

Bilhah (Rachel’s servant)
5. Dan – “Judged” – God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son
6. Naphtali – “Wrestling” – with many wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.

Zilphah (Leah’s servant)
7. Gad – “Good Fortune”
8. Asher – “Happy” (Leah is really enjoying this game now)

Mandrakes and young Reuben (maybe 9 or 10)

9. Issachar – “Wages” – because God has given me my wages since I gave my servant to my husband.
10. Zebulun – “Honor” – maybe now he will honor me because I have given him six sons
D. – Dinah – “Avenged.”

But Jacob still had not biological children with Rachel—the girl of his dreams. Then God finally after humbling Rachel, heard the voice of her pleas for a child of her own, and blessed her with a son.

11. Joseph – “May he add”.

Getting right with Laban
Now he has a son with the girl of his dreams. Now it is time to get out of dodge.

20 years – 7 for “Rachel” (cheated for Leah), 7 actual years for Rachel, and 6 extra trying to have Joseph.

Laban tries to cheat Jacob for leaving.
Jacob: “I will again pasture your flock and keep it, only let me pass through all your flock and remove from it all the speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb and the spotted and speckled goats. This shall be my wages.”

Laban removed all these animals while Jacob wasn’t looking and took them a three day journey away.
But through strange breeding rituals (Genesis 30:37-40) and selecting the strongest to breed, Jacob succeeds in getting his revenge on Laban, leaving him right back where he started. And Jacob packs everyone up in the middle of the night and heads out.

Laban notices all that has happened and pursues Jacob. Though when he gets close, God comes to Laban in a dream and tells him not to harm Jacob. Laban confronts Jacob (you didn’t even let me kiss my grand kids goodbye), to which Jacob shows Laban his error (20 years I served you and you changed the game 10 times, but if God had not blessed me, you would have received nothing, which he showed you last night.) Laban concedes.

And Laban and Jacob swore a covenant with each other that day, each would stay on their own side, because neither trusted each other.

Jacob ad Esau part 2
Now that Jacob was entering the land of his fathers, he still has that whole brother Esau wanting to kill him for cheating him earlier. (a lot to atone for) So Jacob comes up with a plan: send Esau a gift for all he cheated him out of.

200 female goats
20 male goats

200 ewes
20 rams

300 milking camels and their calves

40 cows
10 bulls

20 female donkeys
10 male donkeys

Then Jacob prays, and prays and prays. This new God had better work out.
He breaks the groups up and sends them to Esau with a note: These are from Jacob, please don’t kill him.

Then after these, Jacob plans to meet Esau the next day. And so that night he prays again.

And an angel appears to him and they wrestle all night long. And when the angel did not prevail against Jacob, he dislocated his hip, then says, “Let me go.”

Jacob: I will not let you go until you bless me.

Angel: What is your name?

Jacob: Jacob

Angel: “Your name is no longer Jacob but Israel (He who strives with God.)

Jacob: What is your name?

Angel: Why do you ask that? And he blessed him.

I think he told him his name, and it is quite possible that this was the pre-incarnate Jesus and by telling him his name, he blesses him. What ever happened, Jacob realizes he has just had a brush with death “For I have seen God face t face, and yet my life has been delivered.” See why I think it was Jesus?

Jacob then has to deal with Esau. He meets him head on (a first), but then brings his family in waves (just in case Esau is still mad).

Zilpah and her sons
Bilhah and her sons
Leah and her children
Rachel and Joseph (the favored)

Esau embraces his brother and his children and tries to give back the presents but Jacob won’t let him. And Esau goes his way, and though he invites his brother to stay with him, Jacob does not want to test him luck, tells him he will come, but instead goes another way.

God Strives with Jacob
Now, I told you those stories to tell you this one. Jacob’s name has been changed, so his inner core has as well, but he is not quite ready to fully change, as the interaction with Esau shows. But toward the end of Jacob’s story something changes. Throughout the story, even though his name is changed to Israel, he is still revered to as Jacob, except for two related instances.

Jacob and family were headed back to see his father after many years. On the way, presumably after the encounter with Esau, God again blessed Rachel with a child. But on the way, the time comes for her to give birth to the child, but I’m guessing this child was breach because this child’s birth would result in the death of Rachel. As she was dying, Rachel named him Ben-oni (Son of my sorrow) but Jacob said, no his name will be Benjamin (Son of my right hand). And then his beloved wife Rachel, the girl of his dreams dies there on the side of the road, and there Jacob makes her a tomb.

Right after this line in the Bible, Jacob is referred to not as Jacob, but as Israel—he who strives with God. Jacob in his greatest grief is now being comforted by God. Jacob is striving with God, and God is right there with him. And then when Reuben the old makes a play for the power of the family during this time, God is right there to comfort him in his pain and sorrow.

I have read this passage many times and missed this—it is very subtle, but these are the only times in the Jacob narrative that Jacob is referred to by his new name and I think it is very important what that means. Jacob has finally come to put his full trust in God—he has come full circle.

But this also tells us a lot about God. Sometimes, especially in tragedies, people look for God to deliver them from it. They ask the question “Where was God in all of this?” These three subtle words in Jacob’s time of grief show us that God is with us the whole time.

I think this is one of the least acknowledged aspects of our redemption. Some believe that Jesus Christ came to buy us back from an angry Father who would just as soon smite us as look at us. But this intimacy with Jacob shows us that God is not trying to wipe us out—he loves us too much—he is bringing us back to him, and the only way he can accomplish this is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He shows us in this that as we are going through the ups and down of our redemption, like Jacob, God is always there for us, right there beside us the whole way. And I think this is a very fitting place to end our story with Jacob, wrapped in the arms of his Lord–a redeemed man.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

**If the sparse places, I chose to go with only the notes, so if you want it more fleshed out it is best to go to the audio.


Epiphany 2 Sermon – Jacob the Trickster Learns His Lesson

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Two young lovers are asleep together the day after their wedding. The new husband opens his eyes to greet the day, his first day as a married man. He blinks away the sleep and his head begins to swim a bit. He must have had a very good time last night. In fact, he can’t remember much of the day before, but he knows he has been waiting for it for a long time. Seven years prior he came to live with his uncle, a man named Laban. And Uncle Laban had a beautiful daughter Rachel (remember about Genesis family trees: they don’t fork a whole lot).

Jacob was in love with her from the minute he laid eyes on her. There she was at the well as soon as he walked into town. He knew she was the one because his father met his mother at a well, and his grandfather met his grandmother at a well. This was meant to be.

There she was attempting to water the livestock. Oh but wait, she is a damsel in distress—the stone lid is still on the well and she needs help moving it. That is his in. So even though he is not what you would call a strong man (one might even go so far as to call him scrawny—always asked to stay home to do the women’s work instead of going out hunting with the men), for her, if it would win her heart, he would be the strongest man in town.

So he looks around, and decides he needs to look the part, so he decides to do some pushups. (grunts and slowly) One! Ttttw… One will have to do, don’t want to over do it. And he does his best strong man walk up to her. “Excuse me ma’am, do you need some help with this?”

“Wha? Oh… Why yes (bats her eyelids).”

And Jacob pulled with all his might, and he lifted that stone (which was probably aided by God—an undocumented miracle). And in her gratitude, Rachel kissed Jacob. And he kissed her. And he wept, for he knew that he had now found the love of his life. “I have been sent here by my mother to find a wife. Who is your father that I may that I may ask him for your hand in marriage?”

R: “My father is a man named Laban.”

J: “Laban?! He is my mother’s kinsman! This will work out perfectly, for you are of the exact family of whom
I am supposed to marry!” So he approached Uncle Laban.

J: “Uncle, I have been sent here to your house to find a wife. And I believe I have found the one.”

L: “My Boy! But let us not talk about such things now. Relax. Stay with me for a while. We can talk business later.”

J: “But…”

L: “Later boy.”

After a month of wining and dining, for Laban knew that his pay day had come, for the boy’s family was very wealthy, Jacob finally was able to talk with Laban about his daughter.

L: “Come work for me my nephew. But if you are going to settle down you need to find a wife. Look at my daughter Leah, doesn’t she have the most beautiful eyes?” Leah is Laban’s oldest daughter. Leah’s name means cow, and she her looks…well she has beautiful eyes.

J: “Thank you Uncle she’s…uh, nice, but what about your daughter Rachel? I have seen her by the well and I have loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her. I know she is the one.”

L: “My dear boy, this is wonderful news. Work for me seven years, and she shall be your wife with my blessing.”

Seven years flew by as a day because of his love for her. And last night he finally made her his wife. Though he did do a lot of celebrating last night, the last thing he remembers is his bride, heavily veiled from the wedding ceremony, all except those gorgeous eyes, grabbing his hand and guiding him into the tent. So what; he didn’t remember much of last night, he now has his entire life together with her before him and there will be plenty of time to make new memories. And he rolls over to kiss his new bride, only this was not his Rachel, this was…her older sister Leah!

He bursts out of the tent to figure out just what in the world has happened. And he rips open the door to Laban’s tent. “What have you done? Where is Rachel and why is Leah in my tent?!”

L: “Nephew, Nephew. You cannot expect me to marry off the younger sister before the older has been given away. That is just not how things are done here. You know that. We have an established order here and you must abide by it. Maybe that is why your mother, my sister Rebekah, sent you here—to learn how follow the rules. Now if you still want to marry Rachel, you will have to work for another seven years.”

J: “Seven MORE years?! You cheat! You have tricked me!!” and he stormed out.

And he sat down by the fire outside his tent and thought about his life and how he got to this point.
He thought about the story his mother told him of his birth and how he got his name. She told of how she was barren and how she prayed and prayed for a son. And when the Lord finally blessed her with a child how happy she was. Only to find out that she was blessed not with one child in her womb, but two! And when it was time for her to give birth, out came the first. And he was the hairiest little baby she had ever seen and so she named him Esau (which means hairy).

But as Esau was coming out, as his shins were visible, the midwife noticed a hand grasping the heel of Esau. And the second baby came out shortly after. She called his name Jacob which means “He takes by the heel” or “He cheats.”

Jacob tossed another log in the fire and he could feel the people around beginning to start their day, but he needed more time to think. He thought about the time when he was in the kitchen and Esau was out hunting. How Esau would make fun of him for staying back with the women and doing “house work” while Esau and the rest of the men would go out hunting. One day Jacob was making pottage (pottage is a basic stew, so Jacob must have been learning to cook dinner for the family, so he was probably a teenager, maybe early twenties at most).
That day Esau came in famished after a hard day of hunting (men’s work he reminded Jacob), and he said, “Hey woman, give me some of that red pottage.” (Actually, the Hebrew lets us in on Esau’s mental capacity, for it says, “Give me some of that red red-stuff.” Esau is the Mongo of his day, a real brainiac.)

Jacob sees his chance to really stick it to his brother. “Sure. First sell me your birthright—your status as
first born.”

E: “What do I care about a birthright, I am about to die I’m so hungry.”

J: “Swear to me first.”

E: “Fine. Whatever. Just give me the food.”

Jacob got a bowl and dished it out with a smile of satisfaction on his face such that only a younger brother who has just bested his older brother could manage. And Esau ate, and left. But afterward, when they spoke about it to the family, Esau realized what he had done, and he kicked himself. Jacob now had the status as the older brother and eventual head of the family.

Jacob smiled a bit at this as he made himself something to eat. He too was famished right now. After seven years of waiting, he was very energetic last night and was feeling it now. As he finished his breakfast, he was back to his thoughts.

When his father Isaac took a bad illness that convinced him he needed to pass on the headship of the family before he died and he sought to bless his oldest boy—for Esau was the apple of his father’s eye. “Esau. My boy. Go hunting and make me that food I like to eat so that I may bless you before I die.”

Rebekah, the boys mother heard this and contrived a plan that would have Jacob blessed instead, for as Esau was favored by his father, Rebekah favored Jacob. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob would kill and Rebekah would spice it so that it tasted like his favorite dish. And to confuse him further (since by this time Isaac was blind), Jacob would put on the hide of the slain goat on his arm so that he was as hairy as his brother.
And when all the preparations had been made, Jacob donned the goat hide and out on his brother’s clothes and took in the food. And in his best imitation Esau voice: “Father, here, eat your food that you may bless me.”
I: “How quickly you have come back. Come near that I may feel you my son.” And when he felt the boy (who both felt and smelled like a dead goat, but could not apparently be distinguished from his older brother), Isaac said, “Behold it is the voice of Jacob, but the hands of Esau.” And he blessed his son, an irrevocable blessing, and Jacob left.

When Esau came in carrying his father’s favorite dish looking for his blessing, Isaac then is clued into the deception. Esau gave a loud and bitter cry. “Bless me father also.”

I: “I cannot, your brother has taken away your blessing.”

E: “You named him well when you named him Jacob, for he has cheated me out of everything.” And Esau hated him, and planned to kill him, but because of his love for his father, he would not kill Jacob while Isaac lived.

Rebekah then learned of Esau’s hatred and desire to kill Jacob, and so she came up with another plan to get Jacob away from Esau. She complained about the local women, and badgered and nagged Isaac until he sent Jacob to go live with Laban to find a wife. Uncle Laban indeed.

And on the journey to see Laban, one night Jacob has a dream (we know this as Jacob’s ladder, where he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven). And in that dream, he met God, the same God that his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac had worshipped. And in that dream, God promised the same thing to him that he promised to Abraham and Isaac, and promised to be with him until this happened.
And when he woke up he vowed, “IF God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, THEN the Lord shall be my God.”

And then a large crowd of people had gathered Jacob, for here was a man sitting next to a fire when he should be with his brand new wife in the week of his wedding. And he stood up to face the lesson that he had been taught by his Uncle Laban. He has now felt what it is like to be on the receiving end of the trick, and he does not like it. He is now at rock bottom. But he was going to build himself back up. He was going to work that seven years and the girl of his dreams not by cheating his way, but by work.

And it was hard work for seven long years, but in the end he finally got his beloved Rachel, the love of his life. Sure he had worked for a cheat for 14 years, but she was worth it. Time to finally start his happily ever after.

Beloved, Jacob is an interesting character in the Bible. He is the opposite of his grandfather Abraham. Abraham is the model of faith based on his relationship with God. Jacob on the other hand has established himself as a man who is always working an angle. Even when he finally has an encounter with God (how many of us would give all we have to have God speak to us personally as he did with Jacob?), even then Jacob is working an angle.

But that is in his nature. His name means “Cheater” after all, so he has to do this because he has no choice. Remember that names in the Bible speak to inner dispositions. All Jacob can be is a cheater. But, he has learned his lesson and he has decided to do something about it. In the end, we will see this man rise above his cheating nature and be renamed Israel by becoming a man who, though he back slides now and then, leaves the cheating past behind to become a man who “Strives with God.” And the first thing he will do, with God’s help of course, is give ol’ Uncle Laban his comeuppance…next week.

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

Epiphany 1 Sermon: Child of the Promise Made Long Ago – The Binding of Isaac

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
I remember my first year in seminary, in a strange country where even in August the grass is the most vivid green and during the fall the trees turn colors such that when you walk under them, rather than casting a shadow, the world becomes brighter. So here I am 1,000 miles away from everything that was normal to me.

One day Becca called me up to come down to the seminary’s barn to pick up the things that she purchased at the annual rummage sale. We picked up snow boots and some knickknacks for around the house and a crappy piece of furniture. Becca pulled me around the corner to show me this thing which I could she was very proud to have found. She stood there just looking at me as I surveyed her find. It had two long supports and suspended between them was a little bed that could swing.

I looked back at her. “Ok. What is this?” She said nothing. I obviously had to guess so I looked at it again. “It looks like a baby bed…Oh my Gosh are you telling me that you are pregnant?!” We hugged and kissed and even cried a bit–it was one of the happiest and scariest moments of my life.

The next nine months were a bit of a blur, but I remember driving around in the truck—I had a 2006, midnight blue, single cab Ford F-150, with manual windows and locks. It was the first brand new vehicle I had ever bought, and still to date, I miss that thing. And we would drive in that truck with the car seat in the middle to prepare (I think we put it in there by month 3 of the pregnancy) and we would play on endless loop the Ben Folds Five song “Kate” because that was going to be the name of our girl if we were going to have a girl. (I was very relieved when we found out she was going to be a girl because I had grown so attached.)

And then, on May 14th, 2007, we went to the hospital in Oconomowoc Wisconsin for Becca’s c-section and Miss Kate’s birthday. What a terrifyingly wonderful day, when I got to hold my baby girl in my arms for the first time as her dad. I would do anything for this little girl.

Last week, we left Sarah we just got news that after waiting 90 years, she was now going to become a mother within the year. In fact, when she was first told of the news, she laughed. She laughed as a defense mechanism to protect her in case this was not to be the case. And God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Does she not believe that I can do such a thing? Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, and about this time next year, you will have a son.” But Sarah denied laughing—scared to death that God would back out due to her unbelief. And then in a moment of compassion, God consoles Sarah, “No, I will not take this joy from you…but you did laugh.”

But she did not immediately conceive her son, which I’m sure, allowed a little doubt on Sarah’s part. Maybe Abraham and Sarah were frustrated about their lack of production, so maybe after a month of trying, Abraham decides they need a change of scenery and so they go on the pre-baby moon. But that doesn’t work either. As they are travelling, there is plenty of time to think and maybe Abraham comes to the conclusion that maybe his rendezvous with Hagar was an anomaly, maybe the child of promise was not of his, but of Sarah’s. Maybe two halves make a whole, so Abraham finds the nearest worthy candidate—Abimelech, king of Gerar, seemingly the closest, richest man. Abraham had a scheme that would at least make himself and his remaining family rich and not dead—he again tells Sarah to tell Abimelech that she is his sister. She agrees as does Abimelech, and Sarah takes Sarah into his house.

But this is not in God’s plan. That night, when Abimelech goes to sleep God comes to him in a dream: “Abimelech, you are a dead man for taking another man’s wife as your own.” “
“But wait, I knew nothing of the sort. He said they were brother and sister. I am innocent here.”
“I know, which is why you got so sleepy tonight and nothing happened. Return her to the man, for he is a prophet and will pray for you that you may live. If you do not, you will die.”

Abimelech starts from his sleep and is terrified and calls all of his servants and tells them and they are afraid. Then he goes and bangs on Abraham’s door: “What have you done to me?! Here you come in to my house with this women and approach me about marrying her, only to find out in a dream last night that she is your wife?! What have I ever done to you that you would wish death upon me?”

“Well. Um…Sorry? I mean, she is kin to me, the daughter of my father, though not through my mother. So it wasn’t a complete lie.”

Then Abimelech turns to Abraham: “Here, go dwell wherever you want in my land. Here is sheep, oxen, and male and female servants. Get out of my house, but before you do, your God said that you are to pray for the restoration of my house.” And then he turns to Sarah: “I am sorry about this dear. To show you innocence to all the kingdom, and to wipe away my mistake, here is 1,000 pieces of silver.”

And Abraham prayed and Abimelech’s house was restored, for God had not only made it so Abimelech could not be with Sarah, but he also made it so that no one else in the kingdom could either. And everyone parted ways, and Sarah and Abraham made up and that night they conceived a son. Nine months pass without incident and their long awaited son Isaac is born. Finally after so twenty-five years of waiting, the promise has been fulfilled. And Sarah loved that baby more than anything else and she doted on that child such that no other child had ever been before. Who could blame her? She just had a miraculous child at 90 years old whom she had been promised for 25 years and probably given up hope of having long before that promise was made.

Then one day Abraham come to Sarah and says “I need Isaac. God has called the two of us to go up to Mount Moriah and make a sacrifice.” Reluctantly she lets him go. And Abraham and Isaac gather the supplies they will need to make the sacrifice. I cannot be sure that Abraham told Sarah all the details about the sacrifice, for God told Abraham that he was to sacrifice his son, the son of the promise.

Now we might balk at this, for doesn’t God abhor child sacrifice. Moses strictly forbids the abominable worship to Molech for its requirement of child sacrifice. But, for Abraham, this was a reality. In his travels he encountered plenty of people whose gods required the sacrifice of the firstborn son. Sacrifices are things that are dear to the person and valuable. The sacrifice of the prize-winning bull is because that is what is most valuable, not only because it is the best, but a bull because a bull can sire many little bulls at a given time. The same thing, but amplified by 1000 with a first-born son. The sacrifice cannot be higher. And Abraham has finally come to trust completely in God, so he goes along with it.

It was going to be hard. Three days they travel to the location, with plenty of time to think. Abraham knew that God would make it right, even to the point of resurrection, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t an excruciating trek up the mountain for Abraham. And what was Isaac thinking? Here they are carrying all the supplies, yet nothing to actually sacrifice. And then Abraham stops the party and they ready the wood, but then says to the servants: “Stay here and the boy and I will go up and pray.” He wants no witnesses to what he has to do.

The elderly Abraham turns to his son: “Carry this wood up to the top for me.” Think about how much wood it takes to totally consume a body. How much does he have to take, a half a cord—an entire cord of wood? Up and down he goes carrying this wood—what a heavy burden this must have been. Then when all the wood it placed at the point of the sacrifice, Isaac questions his father, “Father, here I have brought all the wood, and the fire is ready, but where is the lamb to be the sacrifice?”

Abraham says, “God will provide himself, the lamb for a burnt offering my son.” And up they went, and it must have dawned on Isaac what was about to happen, because he willingly allowed himself to be tied up for the sacrifice. Scripture does not say how old Isaac is at this point, but we know Abraham was 100 years old at Isaac’s birth. And the next thing we read after this is Sarah’s death at 127 years old, or when Isaac was 37. So it could very well be that Isaac is 33 years old and his father 133 years old when Isaac is bound by his father. Had Isaac been an unwilling party, this would not have happened.

Then Abraham laid his son on the altar on top of the wood. With tears in his eyes, he raised the knife to sacrifice his son, his only son between he and Sarah, the son of the promise. And when he had prolonged the moment as long has he could, he started to plunge the knife. Sudden he heard a voice, “Abraham! Abraham!”
He stopped the deathblow. “Here I am.”
“Do not lay your hand on the boy for God now knows that you are willing to sacrifice even your only son.” Abraham was finally willing to follow God’s words exactly and not improvise on his own. And Abraham look and, behold, he saw a ram caught by the horns in a thicket, and he offered that ram, that adult male lamb as a sacrifice there on Mount Moriah.

Years later, under King David, this mountain would be set aside of God’s Temple, God’s dwelling place among men and where the sacrifices made at that Temple mimic what happens in heaven. And years later than that on a mountain just across a valley to the west is a mountain where another willing victim, also 33 years old, carried his wood up the mountain for his own sacrifice, only this time God had no other sacrifice to replace. God withheld Abraham’s son Isaac, and Abraham’s words proved so prophetic: “God will provide himself, a lamb” for a sacrifice. This was the fulfillment of the reprieve of Isaac the resulted the realization of God’s promise to Abraham so many years before that all the nations of the world would be blessed through him. And indeed they are and in a much great way than Abraham could ever image, because through Abraham’s willingness not even to withhold his son Isaac, God in turn did not withhold his own Son Jesus as a sacrifice that is the salvation of the whole world.

Now, looking back at my own relationship with my children, I cannot imagine what Abraham must have felt having to go through what he did with his Son; so much more with God and his Son Jesus. To love your child so much, but still be willing to sacrifice them for the greater good is a sacrifice that I am not sure I would be up to. But Abraham was, and God was and I am so glad they were because it means salvation is available for my children and my children’s children and so on. Because they were willing to say yes.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.

But You Promised – God’s Covenants with Abraham

In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Promises. If you make them, you have to keep them. That is how we just the worth of a person—whether or not that person will follow through with what he or she has promised. This is most evident when dealing with children because they haven’t developed the proper filters, and they will call “foul” if they think they are getting a bum rap—even if they have misinterpreted the situation. “But you promised…”

I hate it when I hear those words, especially when things happen out of my control, like building up an outing only to find out the place was closed. I spent 2 hours at Petsmart in Denton a couple of months ago, because I promised Kate we could go see the cats at Noah’s Ark on a Thursday and that is the one day of the week they are closed. So after driving aimlessly around town for a bit, I made the call. Denton, here we come, because I hate seeing the hysterics and hearing, “but you promised.”

That is a bit of the situation in which we find God and Abram today in Genesis—“but you promised.” Ten years have passed since God first made the promise to Abram, land, nation, and blessing. And after ten years, the land God promised to give him is occupied by others, he still has no children, and he may have been a blessing to a few of the people he has met, but surely not everyone in the entire world.

Sure Abram has done pretty well monetarily, but as he sat back on his porch one night, the sheep just stare at you when you try to teach them life lessons, and money can’t play catch. And as he sat there thinking about the events of his life, he remembers those promises God made to him, and thinks, “What if? God, you promised me a boy, yet here I am at the twilight of my life, sitting on my back porch, sonless, surrounded by livestock. In fact, the life insurance guy came by yesterday, and he asked me whom he should write down as the beneficiary and I couldn’t even put down Lot. Lot is way over in Sodom. I had to put down my servant, Eliezer of Damascus. This doesn’t sound like you are living up to your end of the bargain.”

God hears these things, and tells Abram to come outside. “Look up, number the stars if you are able. So shall your offspring be.” And then Abram believes and slaughters a three year old heifer, a goat the same age, as well as a ram, also three years old, and a turtle dove and a pigeon. It seems like we are missing something here. God tells him to go outside to count stars, and Abram is so overwhelmed that he believes. Well he just was lamenting about his age and his lack of any children, so that just seems like rubbing salt in the wound on the part of God. And it is all confusing until we break it down a bit further.

God takes him outside and tells him to look up, then Abram goes to collect the animals, slaughters them, cuts them in two, laying each half over against the other, and he makes sure the birds of prey don’t carry them away. Then we learn that as the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep. So time has passed and the sun is setting, meaning that the time when God took Abram outside to tell him to count the stars was not nighttime, but rather was broad daylight. So God is saying, “Count the stars if you are able. Oh you can’t? Guess what I can. There is a plan unfold which you cannot see, but trust me when I say, as surely as the stars are present though you cannot see them, you will have a son, though you cannot now see how that will happen.” And Abram believed him and set up the covenant.

Covenants are like legal contracts, but much more. They make families of two unrelated parties. Covenants are stronger than contracts, because contracts end when the service is finished; covenants do not end, not even when one party doesn’t live up to it. If the other party doesn’t live up to their part, they are broken against the covenant. This is why covenants are sealed in blood and God tells Abram to gather these specific animals and cut them apart. The way these covenants were sealed is that the party members would walk through the two halves, signifying “If I don’t live up to my part of this, let what happened to these animals happen to me.” Then the two are united, one to another—everything I have is yours and vice versa. Covenants are not merely contracts for an exchange of goods, they are contracts for the uniting of people.

Then, as Abram is falling into his deep sleep, a dreadful and great darkness comes upon him. In this darkness, this dream-like state, God tells him the terms of the covenant: “your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” (God has just explained what will happen in Exodus.) Then God tells Abram that he is not at the twilight of his life—he will indeed live another 90 years, so he is not quite middle aged yet, so there is still plenty of time. And then God seals the covenant himself, by walking through the animal halves in the form of a flaming torch and a smoking incense pot—this will happen or may I be like these animals.

Then the story gets really interesting. Abram tells his wife of this, but no child comes. After a bit, maybe five years, Sarai still isn’t with child, so she takes matters into her own hands and gives her servant Hagar to Abram, thinking, “She’s young, maybe this whole thing will be accomplished through my husband, and am I merely to be the witness of it and the provider of the vessel.” Abram has just been given a kitchen pass to be with a young, let’s say 22 year old, beautiful Egyptian girl. (pause) Notice, Abram does not argue. (This seems to be a pattern in men in the Old Testament, silent men—failing to stand up for God’s plan.)

Lo and behold, Hagar becomes pregnant. But rather than be excited about the whole thing, this upsets Sarai—it has to be a bit of a blow to her ego, after years of trying unsuccessfully, here Hagar gets pregnant IMMEDIATELY. So Sarai blows up at Abram, who understandably, stands with his wife: “Hey this was your idea, but she is also still your servant, do whatever you want.” (This must have been some rage the part of dear Sarai, because notice that Abram did not flinch when Lot was captured—he got his men and tore after them. Here Abram deflects rather than confronts his wife.) So Sarai chases Hagar from the house.

Hagar runs to the middle of the desert to flee from Sarai. Then when the danger is gone from Sarai, here is Hagar, pregnant, without supplies, and in the desert—not good. But the Angel of the Lord appears to her and clues her into the, now amended, plan. The child within her is to be named Ishmael (“God hears”), because God has heard the cries of the young mother. Ishmael too will be a great nation, but he will not be the nation of the promise. Here now enters the theme of the younger brother being chosen over the older, because Hagar and Ishmael are a deviation from God plan as he laid it out to Abram, but God still hears the pleas of that Egyptian servant and blesses the boy nonetheless. So Hagar goes back home and Ishmael is born.

13 years later, Abram is now 99 and still childless with his bride Sarai. God makes another covenant with Abram. But first, he changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Abraham means “father of a multitude.” The name change indicates that God is now going to address the childlessness—first he had to make a covenant signifying the place in which the family would live; now he can address the inhabitants. (Same pattern as creation: deals with the place first and then fills it with inhabitants.)

This covenant also serves as a reminder to Abraham to stay the course. This covenant is literally cut into Abraham. So same pattern, God gives the details: Abraham will indeed be the father of a multitude, and they shall be exceedingly great, such that even kings will come from his line. And the covenant shall be extended to them, they too shall inherit the land I promised to you. Then Abraham’s part: You shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring. On the eighth day, all males shall be circumcised. This shall be the sign of the covenant.

Why circumcision? Two reasons: 1) It serves to “consecrate” the offending “member”—the one that messed up God’s plan, and serves as a reminder to Abraham that he will see all the time. 2) This also causes Abraham to cut off a piece of his own flesh—a minor fall against the covenant, and a reminder: If you don’t keep the commandment, there are consequences to pay. And Abraham’s entire house is marked the same way. But it could be worse. Jews are marked on the eighth day after birth, but Muslims, who come from Ishmael’s line, are marked when Ishmael himself was marked, at 13. No thank you.

God then promises the birth of Isaac by his wife Sarai, whose name is changed to Sarah. Sarah, cannot believe this, but to confirm this to her, God sends three Angels in the form of men to assure this to her. One says to her, “I will return about this time next year, and you will have a son.”

Here is where we leave our story for now. But notice, if you will Beloved, what God is doing. At the beginning Abraham feels like God has forgotten his promises to him and this could possibly been a breaking point between Abraham and his God. Nothing hurts worse than when someone you trust fails to follow through on their promises. So when Abraham calls God on this, God shows Abraham that He has not forgotten but has set everything in motion to make this happen, but it is happening in such a way that Abraham cannot see the inner workings.

God brings it back to their established relationship. Have I not delivered you thus far and blessed you along the way? Trust that, but to reassure you, let me make this more tangible for you, here is a covenant. But apparently after a few years, even this covenant was not enough for complete trust and buy-in, so God reminds him of this covenant with another covenant. God is always faithful to his covenants and his promises.

Next week, we will see the fulfillment of the promise of the birth of Isaac, and see the making of the third and final covenant that will result in the ultimate blessing of all nations.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.