31 July 2016

Sermon – “The Lion Roars” (Hosea 11:1-11)

 What do you say to a congregation you’ve never met before, in a denomination where you’ve never served, and among whom you know barely a single soul? That’s the predicament I’m in this morning here with you at King’s Presbyterian. And if you have the answer, I’ll gladly surrender the pulpit to you for the next twenty minutes! More seriously, I am grateful both to my long-time friend and colleague, Paul Hutten, for his recommendation and for the graciousness of your Minister, Tim Archibald, for entrusting his pulpit to a stranger for a Sunday morning.
But back to my conundrum. What to preach on? Well, as an Anglican my fallback position is, when in doubt, go to the lectionary. And among the Scriptures that the lectionary offers for this particular Sunday in the church’s year is the reading you heard a few minutes ago from the prophet Hosea, chapter 11.
As I began to read through the passage, I felt a little bit like the teacher of the law that Jesus talked about in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said he was “like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).
Recently I came across the story of Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast:
In July 2009, [he] decided to try his luck in farmland close to his home in Staffordshire in the English countryside. He came across an artifact, and bingo. Over the next five days, he found enough gold objects in the soil to fill 244 bags. An archeological expedition was hatched, and all told, the “Staffordshire Hoard” was found to contain some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. The cache of gold, silver and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon times represents one of the most important kingdoms of the era—and was valued at around $5.3 million.[1]
Like Terry Herbert, who I suspect may have walked past that Staffordshire field dozens, even hundreds, of times, I know I’ve read Hosea 11 many times. Yet in over forty years of ordained ministry I’ve never preached on it before. And as I began to comb through it, I also began to realize what a treasure I had been passing by again and again. As one biblical scholar has put it, “Here we penetrate deeper into the heart and mind of God than anywhere in the Old Testament.”[2] So let’s take the next few moments to see what God may have to say to us from these verses.

God’s abiding care (1-4)

The reading divides neatly into three sections, the first of which begins with a declaration by God himself: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…” As parents love their children, so God intimately, tenderly loves his people. You can see that love reflected in the series of verbs that follow: “I taught them to walk.” “I healed them.” “I led them with kindness and love.” “I lifted them to my cheek.” “I stooped down to feed them.”
Those who are parents in the congregation will remember how you cared for your own children, how you looked after them, fed them, taught them, bandaged up their cuts and scrapes, and no doubt shed the occasional tear with them as well. And if you haven’t had the privilege of sharing that kind of love as a parent, I suspect you probably received it as a child.
The eighteenth-century poet William Cowper beautifully expressed what we read this morning in a hymn that includes these words:
I delivered thee when bound,
and when bleeding healed thy wound,
sought thee wandering, set thee right,
turned thy darkness into light.
Can a woman’s tender care
cease toward the child she bare?
Yes, she may forgetful be,
yet will I remember thee.
Mine is an unchanging love,
higher than the heights above,
deeper than the depths beneath,
free and faithful, strong as death.
Of course Hosea was not the first to say what he did. In fact, the opening words of this morning’s passage hark all the way back to the time of the Exodus, when God commanded Moses to tell Pharaoh, “This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son…” (Exodus 4:22). Nor would Hosea be the last. Years later the prophet Jeremiah would proclaim, “The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’ ” (Jeremiah 31:3). And of course part of Cowper’s words came from Isaiah, through whom God reminded his people, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15). For me one of the places this truth is most poignantly expressed is in the Garden of Eden, when God looks on the human being that he has formed from the dust and bends down and breathes into him the breath of life. It is an arresting picture of the deep tenderness of God’s love for us, his creatures.
Of course as Christians we see this love taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ act of reaching out his hand a leper, who had not felt the warmth of a human touch for years, perhaps decades, spoke to him more about the love of God than any words even of the most eloquent prophet. Jesus’ act of stopping and turning to a woman who was too humiliated to do anything more than touch the hem of his robe said to her in a way that words could not, “You matter. You too are God’s precious child.” And calling down Zacchaeus from his safe perch up in the sycamore tree and going to his house to share a meal would teach him that God’s love does not exclude cheats and reprobates either.
John’s gospel tells us, “God so loved the world…” But that love is not just a theological construct or some feel-good wish. It is a love that is both personal and practical, a love that cares, touches, heals and even weeps for his people. Yet there is a whole other side to Hosea’s prophecy, as we shall see…

Israel’s persistent defiance (5-7)

In the second segment of Hosea’s prophecy the focus shifts from God to the nation of Israel. And what do we find? We move from a gently caring parent to a defiant and rebellious child. There is an important historical background to what Hosea wrote. The year was probably around 733 BC. Hosea was writing in the northern kingdom of Israel, centred in Samaria. The nation had already been attacked and conquered by the powerful armies of the Assyrian Empire and a couple of things had happened. Some of its citizenry had fled southwards to Egypt, while others of its leadership had thrown in their lot with their Assyrian conquerors. In either case, this represented not just a geographical move or even a political alliance, but a shifting away from God to embrace the rituals and practices and, more seriously still, the deities of those nations.
Equally seriously, even those who had remained had consistently refused to heed warnings of the prophets, who had repeatedly called them to repent and return to the Lord. Less than a generation before Hosea, Amos had warned them in these crystal-clear words (and here I read from Eugene Petersen’s earthy paraphrase in The Message):
This is what the Lord says:
Because of the three great sins of Israel—make that four—
I’m not putting up with them any longer.
They buy and sell upstanding people
People for them are only things—ways of making money. 
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
is piled up at the shrine of their god,
while they sit around drinking wine
they’ve conned from their victims…
I also raised up prophets from among your children…
but you commanded the prophets not to prophesy. (Amos 2:6-8,11-12)
The biggest problem facing Israel, Hosea and the other prophets argued, was not its Assyrian conquerors who had attacked from the outside, but the spiritual and moral corruption that was slowly but inexorably eating it away from within. In the New Testament we find Jesus saying much the same thing to the religious leaders of his day. Again, let me read it to you from The Message. “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds” (Matthew 23:27-28). As the prophet Isaiah lamented, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).
And so we see that some of the most telling condemnations that we find in the Bible are against God’s own people. We are quick to blame so many of the world’s woes on other people, be they politicians, Islamists, Hollywood, the NRA or whatever. But what about ourselves? We may not have bowed down before idols like Hosea’s fellow Israelites. But to what extent have we yielded to false values of the world around us? How much does what we profess here on Sunday morning bear an influence on what we do and the kind of people we are from Monday to Saturday? Does God look upon us in the same way that he did upon the people of Hosea’s day?

The final outcome (8-11)

There was a punishment prescribed for recalcitrant youths in the Old Testament and it was severe. Let me read Deuteronomy 21:18-21 for you:
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.
I’m not sure the sentence was ever carried out (I certainly hope not!), but I have no doubt that when Hosea proclaimed his prophecy against his people, both he and they were well aware of these words. As a nation they had brought upon themselves what was happening to them. They deserved to be wiped out. Yet God, who had brought them into existence, who had nurtured and cared for them, who loved them with an everlasting love, would not allow this to happen. “How can I give you up?” he cries. “How can I hand you over? … My heart recoils within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger… For I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” If we had time, we could spend hours just poring over these remarkable verses. In all of Scripture there are only a handful of other places where we are permitted to gaze so deeply into the heart of God. I think we could probably count them on the fingers of one hand. Like Moses we need to take off our shoes and hide our faces, for we stand on holy ground. We have entered the Holy of Holies.
But our moment of meditation is broken by a lion’s roar. And I suspect that those of us who are C.S. Lewis or Narnia fans will not be able to read these verses without thinking of Aslan. Do you recall the scene, towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the great lion says to the children, “And now to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears.” Then the story goes on,
And they did. And Aslan stood up and when he opened his mouth to roar his face became so terrible that they did not dare to look at it. And they saw all the trees in front of him bend before the blast of his roaring as grass bends in a meadow before the wind.
“The Lord will roar from Zion,” wrote the prophet Joel, “and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.” And then he goes on: “But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel” (Joel 3:16). God roars—his hatred of evil and all that undermines and despoils his good purposes in creation is unabated. God roars—and the powers of wickedness and injustice will fall like a house of cards before him. God roars—and his children will know that they are safe once again.
“When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt, trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
The Lion has roared. May we hear his voice today.

[1]        http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/stories/6-incredible-treasures-found-with-a-metal-detector
[2]        H.D. Beeby, Grace Abounding, 140
[3]        “Hark, my soul, it is the Lord”

25 July 2016

Sermon – “Rachel and Leah” (Genesis 29:1-12 [16-30] et al.)

 My wife Karen and I may be the only two people in the whole of Canada who do not lament the disappearance of door-to-door mail delivery. About a month after we moved back to Halifax last summer, Canada Post erected a new “superbox” diagonally across the street from our house. For the little while, almost every time we went to pick up mail, it gave us the opportunity to meet our new neighbours and introduce ourselves—and I don’t think it could possibly have happened otherwise.
I remember being present at a presentation some years ago where the speaker made the comment that one of the early factors that have led to the decline of the sense of community in our society over the past 150 years has been the disappearance of the community well. (It has also led to the disappearance of dysentery and cholera, but that’s another issue!) The point he was making was that the well provided a place for people to gather and also a place where they could exchange information and catch up with one another—much like our community mailbox.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that in the Bible wells are often the places where significant conversations transpire. This morning, for example, in the gospel reading, Jesus meets with a woman at a well, who not only discovers where she can find living water but that the person she is speaking with is the Messiah. Last week we saw how Abraham’s servant found a wife for his son Isaac at another well. And in this morning’s Old Testament reading we witness yet another pivotal meeting at a well, as Jacob sets his eyes for the first time on his cousin Rachel and the two fall instantly and incurably in love.

Rachel’s Romance

The story of Rachel and her relationship with Jacob is one of the great romances of the Bible. It is hot and passionate, as Jacob displays the strength of a superhero, dashing across to lift an enormous stone from the mouth of a well so that she and her sheep can have access to its cool, refreshing waters. It continues as he embraces and kisses her and begins to weep aloud, abandoning all the customs and conventions of the day. He is hopelessly smitten with this rapturously beautiful woman.
I wonder how many of us generally think of the Bible as a romantic book. If you’re like me, you’re probably more inclined to go to it to learn about doctrine. I was brought up on the inductive method of Bible study: observe, interpret, apply. And I have no desire to knock that method. It brings a discipline and a focus to Bible study that are vitally important. But the Bible is not just about doctrine—and one thing that the story of Rachel teaches us about, if nothing else, is romance, passion.
Rachel and Jacob’s attraction to each other was instantaneous, as passionate as anything you might see at the movies. Yet it was far more and far deeper than a summer love affair or temporary fling. Theirs was a love that sustained them through time. For seven long years Jacob and Rachel patiently waited for the day her father Laban would allow them to be married. And Genesis tells us, “They seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20). Then, when Laban substituted his older daughter Leah for Rachel on their wedding night (and Jacob the trickster was tricked!) he was willing to work another seven years to earn the right to call her his wife. It was a love that did not dim in the face of years of family conflict and of the disappointment of childlessness, and that carried them through to the time of Rachel’s death in the anguish of childbirth.
Of course Rachel and Jacob’s relationship is not the only account of romance we find in the Bible. We have only to go as far as the second chapter of Genesis. Think of Adam’s words when he first sets sight on Eve: “At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!” (Genesis 2:23) Think of the tender love between Boaz and Ruth, of Hosea’s unrelenting pursuit of Gomer in spite of her unfaithfulness—or of the Song of Songs, eight chapters of unabashed and sometimes embarrassingly sensual love poetry. (I once preached a series of sermons on the Song of Songs, but kept an eye to make sure the children were out of the congregation first!)
Against this backdrop R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, draws some broader conclusions. He writes:
As … [Rachel and] Jacob’s hot passion illustrates, the biblical view treats passion as the engine of destiny, for good or ill… Our loyalty to the future of sin cannot be broken by cool reflection… Only a counterloyalty, a counterlove, can set us free from our bondage to false loves… Only the madness of love and its arrogant disdain for human limitations can motivate us to seek fellowship with God. Thus, the sheer ambition of the promise of salvation encourages a view of the human in which the urgency of desire plays a more fundamental role than deliberations of reason… Christianity and Judaism prize the gift of reason. But neither misconceives its role or overestimates its power… The intellect needs to be informed, but it must also be energized, and to do so the passions must be engaged.[1]
Is it any coincidence therefore that the final pages of the Bible give us a picture of another romance, of a bridegroom awaiting his bride and the overwhelming joy that follows (Revelation 21:2-4)? If Rachel teaches us nothing else, it is that God has made us to be passionate—relentlessly pressing on, as Paul put it, “to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12).
Erica Sabiti was the first African Anglican Archbishop of Uganda. As a boy he had been educated in church schools; he had attended a Christian college, studied in seminary, been ordained to the ministry. Yet through all of that he would describe himself as having for many years been eighteen inches away from the kingdom of God. What did he mean? The eighteen inches between his head and his heart. We need to have a faith that touches us deeply, that invades every area of our lives including our deepest emotions, our passions.

Rachel’s Rivalry

There is a whole other side to Rachel, however, that we cannot neglect—a deeply negative side to her passion, if you will. It is reflected in her fierce competitiveness, her utter unwillingness to settle for anything less than first place, even if that meant resorting to less than honourable means to achieve it. In that regard she was the perfect match for her husband Jacob and it led to what to me are two of the strangest incidents in the Bible.
Rachel had been forced through her father Laban’s trickery to share her marriage to Jacob with her sister Leah. What made matters worse, indeed deeply painful for Rachel, was that for years she was unable to conceive, while Leah gave birth to boy after boy. One day, Leah’s eldest, Reuben, was working in the fields when he came across some mandrake plants. Mandrakes are in fact poisonous, but their fleshy, carrot-like roots often resemble miniature human figures and in the ancient world they were commonly believed to have powers as an aphrodisiac or fertility enhancer. When Rachel saw them, she immediately wanted them. Indeed, so desperate was she to gain possession of them in the hopes of bearing a child that she traded her place in her husband’s bed for them. To her chagrin, it was not she but Leah who became pregnant, and bore Jacob a fifth son.
The second strange incident took place as Jacob finally decided he had had enough of living as a member of his unprincipled father-in-law Laban’s household, where life had become increasingly intolerable. It was during sheep-shearing time, when Laban was safely off with his flocks, that they decided to make a break for it. Just before they left, Rachel sneaked into her father’s tent and stole what our New International Version Bibles describe as Laban’s household gods. The word in Hebrew is teraphim, and it probably refers to a small idol kept in the house as a protective talisman. In 1926 archaeologists discovered an ancient near-eastern document from the 15th century BC suggesting that such figures belonged to the primary heir in a family, that possession of them was the prerogative of the head of the household. So was this Rachel’s way of finally supplanting her older sister Leah? Or was it just a means of finally gaining mastery over her father Laban after his deceitful behaviour all those many years ago? No one really knows, and Rachel’s motives remain a mystery.
It not long before that incident that the Bible tells us that God “remembered” Rachel and she gave birth to a son. Of course God had never forgotten Rachel. Her name means “ewe” and she had always been one of his sheep and always would be. Her problem was that she was so driven, so consumed by wanting to be on top in the worldly sphere, that that eclipsed for her the truth that she was of infinite value to God—that his passion for her burned hotter even than Jacob’s. She was a sheep for whom the Good Shepherd would lay down his life.

Leah the Unloved

Rachel named her first son Joseph. He was the most famous of Jacob’s sons and he would later save the whole family (and as a result the nation that descended from it) from famine. Her second son was Benjamin, from whose lineage would come Israel’s first king, Saul. Centuries later from the tribe of Benjamin would come another Saul, the man who later became Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.
However, it would not be through Rachel, but through her sister Leah, that the greatest line, the line to the Messiah, would be traced—Leah, whose name means “weary” and about whom the only thing that is said is that she had delicate eyes. Poor Leah, always having to live in the shadow of her younger, ambitious, outgoing, clever, ravishingly beautiful sister! I suspect that she too may have been at the well that day when Jacob fell head over heels for Rachel. But he would have taken no notice of her. No one ever did. It was as though she was never there. She bore six sons to Jacob, and while he looked after her and was in all likelihood kind and tender towards her, it was always Rachel that he truly loved.
Yet while Rachel was Jacob’s choice from the get-go, God had his eye on Leah. And isn’t this God’s way again and again? As you thumb through the ancestry of Jesus in the gospels, you come across some of the most unlikely people: Rahab, the prostitute who plied her trade so conveniently just inside the town wall of Jericho and is commended in the great gallery of the faithful in Hebrews 11; Ruth, a widow and a Gentile who had no thought of ever finding another husband; David, the least likely of Jesse’s sons to take on the leadership of a nation, who was good for nothing more than to strum his harp among the sheep, but the one whom God had chosen as Israel’s king; Mary, a girl barely in her teens living in a remote village in far-off Galilee—and, what was more—a virgin! “How can this be?” she asked. But it was. And why? Because we have a God who delights in surprising us, who again and again chooses the least likely, the most unobvious people, to be heralds of his kingdom, channels of his grace. And that improbable lineage includes the likes of you and me!
Brothers and sisters, [wrote the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth] think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:26-30)
Rachel’s story tells us about passion. Leah’s story tells us that we must never underestimate what our mighty God can do through us or through others. Indeed, his strength is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). May their two stories combine to impel us to trust in him with passion.

[1]        Genesis (Brazos Commentary), 238

17 July 2016

Sermon – “Rebekah” (Genesis 27:1-17 et al.)

Who among us hasn’t heard it said, “She got to where she is because she was in the right place at the right time”? In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell offers numerous examples of famous people who, in part at least, got to where they did because they happened to be in the right place at the right time—people as disparate as Bill Gates and the Beatles, Andrew Carnegie and Wayne Gretzky. Not that these people did not have an enormous amount of talent and ability, not that they did not put in prodigious hours of hard work, but one of the reasons that they succeeded where others with equal ability and effort did not, was that they happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In the case of all-star hockey players, for example, a hugely disproportionate number (40% in fact) are born in the first quarter of the year. “Why?” asks Gladwell. His answer is that the cut-off date for admission into hockey programmes is January 1—which means that by and large children born early in the year will have a significant physical advantage over those with later birth dates. (Wayne Gretzky’s birthday, by the way, is January 26.)
Once again, Gladwell is not seeking to take away from the incredible talent of Wayne Gretzky or from the abilities of the Beatles or Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates. But what he is saying that in each case there were factors outside their control or effort that contributed to their success, and one of them was being in the right place at the right time.
Well, this morning we meet with a woman who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Rebekah’s story begins while she is off-stage, somewhere in the wings. In the spotlight is Abraham, who is now “old, and well advanced in years”, as the Bible describes him. We can picture him stooped and leaning on his staff as he calls in his oldest and most trusted servant. Nowhere in the engaging story that follows are we given the servant’s name, though many suspect it was Eliezer of Damascus, mentioned in Genesis 15:2. Whoever it was, Abraham sends him out on a crucial mission—to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He makes him swear a solemn oath to go back to his homeland and his relatives and sends him off with ten camels, loaded with costly gifts.

Rebekah’s beauty

As the curtain rises on the next act we find the servant arriving at the city where Abraham’s brother Nahor lived. The sun was waning and the heat of the day had passed and the women had begun to come out to draw water from the local well. So what was he to do now? Pray! And pray he did: “God of my master Abraham, let the girl to whom I say, ‘Lower your jug and give me a drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and let me also water your camels’—let her be the woman you have picked out for your servant Isaac.” And I suppose we could say that the rest was history. Barely had he uttered his prayer when a stunningly beautiful young woman arrived at the well. “Please, do you mind if I take a sip of water from your jug?” “Drink,” came the reply, “and let me get water for your camels, too, until they’ve drunk their fill.”
It’s an absolutely engaging story, and recounted with all the artistry of a master storyteller. But we need to stop there for just a moment to examine its details. First of all, we need to know that a camel that has gone without water for a few days can quaff down nearly a hundred litres. Secondly, the kind of jug that women in the ancient world used for drawing water held maybe ten litres at most.[1] Now do your math. This means that for ten thirsty camels Rebekah may have had to draw from that well as many as a hundred times. No mean task!
If nothing else, this tells us that Rebekah’s beauty was considerably more than skin deep. Alongside her physical attractiveness she had the gift of gracious hospitality, which in spite of all the violence and animosity of recent years is still so evident in middle-eastern lands. Karen and I encountered an example of it when we were travelling through Libya with our son Simon six years ago. Our vehicle needed gas, so we pulled up at a filling station. Unfortunately the large underground tank was being filled at the time, with the result that we had to wait under the blazing sun behind a long line of cars until the process had been completed, and it took more than an hour. When we were finally allowed to proceed, what did we find but men anxiously ushering us to the head of the long queue? We protested that we were happy to wait our turn. But no, we were guests in their country and they would not take no for an answer.
What a precious gift it is when outward attractiveness is matched by an inner beauty and strength of character as well. I think of the young shepherd boy David, who would not allow himself to be cowed by the roaring and threats of the giant Goliath; of Queen Esther, who courageously risked her life by pleading for her people before King Xerxes; of Daniel and his three young companions, who refused to engage in the pagan practices of the Babylonians; and of Stephen in the New Testament courageously sharing his faith in Jesus before the hostile religious council, who saw that his face was like the face of an angel. The Bible warns about “those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart” (2 Corinthians 5:12). Instead it commends to us the infinitely more beautiful fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Rebekah’s serendipity

Rebekah, then, as she first appears in the Scriptures, is a woman of both outer and inner beauty—and in that regard I suspect that she was not unique among the people of Nahor’s city. What was equally important (we might even go so far as to say all-important) was that she happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I wonder if you have ever had that experience? I remember years ago, early in my ministry, for some reason deciding to drop into the shabby flat of a man who had come to me for financial help on a couple of occasions. He had had a longstanding struggle with alcohol but had been sober for some time. As it turned out, as I knocked on his door he was just about to open the first bottle in a twelve-pack of beer that he had just bought from the liquor store. I remember one snowy Christmas morning in the wake of a blizzard when just three people turned up in church. I was one of them and the other two were a woman and her daughter. I had seen her regularly in the congregation but had never got to know her. That morning gave us the opportunity to chat for the first time and it wasn’t long before she was involved in a Bible study group and later became the church’s treasurer. And if you gave me time I could probably come up with a whole series of similar incidents—and I suspect that if you look back on your life you could likely do the same, of being in the right place at the right time.
Now I know that most people—and possibly we ourselves—might write those things off as coincidences. But that was not the case with Abraham’s servant. “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my master Abraham,” he uttered in amazement, “who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives” (Genesis 24:27). He had the spiritual insight to recognize that what was taking place at that moment was not mere happenstance. It was the result of God’s faithfulness, God’s gracious leading. Now that word “led” is found only at this point in Genesis, although it is found elsewhere in the Bible, most notably in Psalm 23: “He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about “… the hidden, inscrutable guidance of God …” “We do not always know the gifts of God in advance,” he continues. “But given a perspective of faith, we can in subsequent reflection discern the amazing movement of God in events we had not noticed or which we had assigned to other causes.” He goes on,
In a culture which grasps for visible signs of faith, which is driven toward scientism, and which falls for too many religious quackeries, the story stands as a foil against easy and mistaken faith. The workings of God are not spectacular, not magical, not oddities. Disclosure of God comes by steady discernment and by readiness to trust the resilience that is present in the course of daily affairs. There is an understatedness about the action of the narrative. But it is not reticent about faith. It is an understatement that is ready to be sustained and profoundly grateful when gifts are given. [2]
Another Old Testament scholar, John Walton, writes about learning to see God’s fingerprints, being guided by the everyday circumstances that he brings into our lives.”[3] The servant recognized God’s leading, but he was not the only one being led that day. It was Rebekah as well. And while we don’t have time to go into the details of how this particular chapter unfolds, it becomes very clear that Rebekah was a woman who both followed God’s leading and was fully prepared to go wherever that took her. In that sense she was a true child of God.

Rebekah’s duplicity

So it is that Rebekah is brought to the future husband she has never met, and we are told that “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her.” And here is where the first shadow of future tragedy begins to cast itself over what so far has been an enchanted love story. The Bible immediately tells us, “And Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” Rebekah soon came to discover that she had not only to be a wife to her husband, but a mother as well.[4] Her situation only becomes worse when what should have been a joyful event, the birth of twin sons, turns out to be an omen of enmity and strife. Even in her uterus she could feel the babies jostling with each other. When she spoke to the Lord about it, the answer was clear: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
As they grew up, the two were as different as chalk and cheese. Esau was ruddy and strong, a man’s man, who loved to be outdoors and hunt. By contrast Jacob much preferred to stick around the tents. It was clear that Esau was Isaac’s favourite, no doubt because as the older son he was the natural heir, but perhaps also because he embodied so much of the character that his father lacked. But Rebekah never forgot the prophecy that had been given to her: “… the older will serve the younger.”
Now flash forward many years. Isaac is old and blind and it’s time to think of passing on the torch to the next generation. We have already read it from the Old Testament, so I don’t have to tell you how the story unfolds. Perhaps it was the result of years of living in a passive-aggressive relationship. Perhaps it was just part of the same deceitful streak that we see in her brother Laban. We don’t know and we probably never will. Whatever the cause and with the complicity of Jacob, Rebekah resorts to an act of intolerable deceit to guarantee her son’s place as head of the family and heir to the promises of God.
The result of this duplicitous act is that Jacob does indeed inherit the promise and the blessing of his father. But also the rivalry between the two brothers now becomes open warfare and Rebekah ends up never seeing them again. In her efforts on behalf of one son she loses both. It is a tragic end to a story that began with such promise. And what are we to say to all of this? That the end, no matter how high or pure, does not justify the means, is obvious.
Yet there is also a greater truth at work. Once again Walter Brueggemann cautions us: “This is not a spiritual treatise on morality. It is, rather, a memory of how faith moves in the rawness of experience. We must leave it at that.”[5] And I suppose the apostle Paul was saying much the same when he wrote, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). May we take heart from Rebekah that we have a God who in his infinite grace and mysterious wisdom is able to take our impure motives and sinful acts and use them for his greater purposes. He is the God of the cross.

[1]        John H. Walton, Genesis (NIV Application Commentary), 530
[2]        Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary), 199-201
[3]        Walton, 540
[4]       Clovis G. Chappell, Feminine Faces, 42
[5]        Brueggemann, 229

10 July 2016

Sermon – “Sarah” (Genesis 18:1-15, et al.)

No doubt many of you have heard it said that behind every successful man there is always a woman—and I’ve heard it added that she couldn’t be more surprised. Originally when I was planning to preach in July I thought I might do a series of sermons on the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But then I began to ask myself, what about those largely overlooked women who stood beside them? What about Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, the Matriarchs, each of them a towering figure in her own right? So it is that I want us to take a three-week journey together as we meet ever so briefly with each of these three remarkable women.
As I do so, I am reminded of another quotation, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” As I have been preparing this series I have received numerous warnings from my wife, Karen, whose wisdom has proved itself countless times over the years of our marriage. “Do you think the women in the congregation haven’t been over these stories countless times at women’s conferences and retreats?” That may be so, but perhaps we men in the congregation also need to hear them and to allow God to speak his word to us through Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel.
I should also say at the outset that I am indebted to a contemporary author named Carolyn Custis James, whom Karen and I were privileged to hear as she gave the convocation address at Bethel University early in our years in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her book, Lost Women of the Bible, was in large part the inspiration that got me started looking at the great parade of amazing women whom we are privileged to meet on the pages of Scripture.
So let’s turn to Sarah, whom we first encounter in Genesis 11:29. There, and for the next six chapters, her name is not Sarah but Sarai. Scholars differ on exactly what distinction can be made between the meanings of the two names. However, one possible meaning for “Sarai” is “my princess”, while “Sarah” is simply the Hebrew for “princess”. In Genesis 17:15-16 God speaks to Abraham and says to him, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai [“my princess”]; her name will be Sarah [“princess”] … I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Perhaps I am trying to derive too much from a name, but my take on this is that what God was declaring about Sarah was that she was a princess not because of anyone else’s assertion about her, but entirely in her own right. Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that the character we meet with in these thirteen chapters of Genesis was a regal woman.
Sarah’s faith
Like Abraham, Sarah came from the city of Ur, a cosmopolitan oasis in the midst of what was then and is today a chaotic and dangerous desert region in modern-day Iraq. Even in their time, the city had more than 2000 years of history. In Sarah’s day it was an important trading centre for precious metals such as gold and silver, and gems like carnelian and lapis lazuli. Archaeologists have excavated tombs containing immense amounts of wealth. Fields were kept fertile through an extensive irrigation system. Its skyline was crowded with temples, including an enormous ziggurat. All in all, the picture we are left with is of a city of unparalleled prosperity in the ancient world.
All of this Sarah left behind in response to her husband’s call from an unseen God. “She gives up certainty for uncertainty, acquaintances for strangers, civilization for wilderness, the amenities of the city for the hardships of the desert,” wrote the Scottish preacher and hymn writer George Matheson.[1] And to quote another Scotsman, Herbert Lockyer,
If Abraham is ‘the father of all them that believe’, surely Sarah is their mother… Sarah speaks of that which is in faith, and by promise, and is free—and therefore is carried on in those who live on God’s promises by faith in Christ, and have that perfect freedom which is alone found in his service, and thus belong to the heavenly Jerusalem.[2]
So it is that we find Sarah in that great portrait gallery of the faithful in Hebrews 11: “And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.” Like her husband Abraham, she “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:11,10).

Sarah’s beauty 

Alongside her faith, one of the things we learn about Sarah early in her story is that she was a woman of exceptional physical beauty. Centuries later the rabbis would comment In the Talmud, “She was so beautiful that all other persons seemed apes in comparison.”[3] No doubt that was something of an embellishment on the facts. Yet Sarah’s beauty was such that when Abraham ventured into Egypt to escape a famine, he had her pose as his sister, not his wife, for fear that the Egyptians might kill him in order to claim her.
To be fair, what Abraham and Sarah professed about themselves was not entirely untrue. It was a fact that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, sharing the same father but born of a different mother. Yet both of them knew very well that their marriage vows took precedence over their blood relationship and their deception quickly came back to haunt them. It did not take long for news of Sarah’s beauty to reach the ears of none less than Pharaoh, who took her into his harem. Within a very short time the whole household was stricken with a series of illnesses and Pharaoh began to suspect that the problem lay with Sarah. People in power have ways of finding things out, and when he discovered that Sarah was in reality Abraham’s wife, he had the two of them banished from his kingdom.
Now you’d think that Sarah and Abraham might have learned a lesson from that. However, it appears that twenty years later Sarah’s striking beauty had not diminished. This time they were living in the little kingdom of Gerar, a Philistine town in what is now south-central Israel. It was almost an exact repeat performance, with Sarah masquerading as Abraham’s sister. This time around Abimelech, the king of Gerar, was warned in a dream that the woman he had taken into his harem was already married. However, instead of ejecting them from his kingdom, he gave them the freedom to live wherever they chose.
So we discover that while Sarah was a woman who trusted God (and I think honestly trusted him with all her heart), she discovered, as many of us have, that it was not always easy to live out that faith though difficult challenges or adverse circumstances. She did not possess the boldness of Deborah, who accompanied the Israelite army against the chariots of Sisera. Nor did she enjoy the quiet confidence of Esther, who risked her life to plead the cause of her people before the emperor of Persia. Like Peter outside the high priest’s court, Sarah along with her husband Abraham allowed her faith in God to fade into the background in the face of danger.
So we see that the picture that the Bible gives us of Sarah is not some paragon of perfection, the “ideal” woman. No, beneath her extraordinary physical beauty we find a frail and flawed human being like the rest of us, yet whom God still used to advance his purposes in the world.

Sarah’s pain

Beneath that beauty Sarah also carried a secret pain—her inability to bear a child for Abraham. In fact one of the first things that the Bible says about Sarah, before it mentions her beauty or almost anything else about her, is her inability to conceive. In Genesis 11, where she is first introduced, a list of all of Abraham’s family with their wives and husbands and their children tersely concludes, “But Sarai was barren; she had no child.”
“These words would have sent a dagger straight through Sarah’s heart,” writes Carolyn Custis James, “… exposing an open wound and simultaneously eliminating her from the big things God was doing in her family…” She continues,
In the ancient world the value of a woman was measured simply by counting her sons. By this calculation, Sarah scored a zero. Her sole contribution … was to produce a son for her husband, and she didn’t have what it took… She was a woman in a man’s world, and she was barren.[4]
I have no doubt that Sarah and Abraham agonized and prayed for years over what can only have been a source of deep and abiding sorrow for both of them. After all, had God not promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation whose numbers would be like the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore? Yet as year followed year what had been a promise must have felt for them more like a curse. Finally, as any possibility of childbearing became for Sarah a thing of the past, she hit upon a plan. In the words of Alexander Whyte, “Sarah sacrificed herself on the cruellest altar on which any woman ever laid herself down.”[5]
Sarah’s decision to give her slave Hagar to Abraham as a sexual surrogate seems strange to our ears, but in fact it was not an unheard of custom in the ancient near eastern world. There is, for example, an Assyrian marriage contract, dating from around 1900 BC, which specified of a newly married wife, If within two years she does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slave woman, and later on, after she will have produced a child by him, [she] may then dispose of her by sale wheresoever [she] pleases.”[6] So it was that Abraham slept with Hagar and Hagar conceived. And as anyone who is familiar with this story well knows, the results were disastrous. Hagar, now pregnant with Abraham’s child, began to despise her mistress, with the result that Sarah became cruel to Hagar, and that rivalry and ill will continues through their descendants right down to our own time. But that is another story.
What is germane to us is that for years Sarah was forced to live with the silence of God. Again and again we can picture her alone in her tent sobbing and crying out with the prophets and the psalmists, “How long, O Lord?” And she is not alone. How many of us have not had times when we have been faced with the silence of God? Mother Teresa was one of the towering figures of Christian faith during the twentieth century, but little was known of her decades-long inner struggles until after she died. Listen to one of her prayers:
Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one you have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no one to answer—no one on whom I can cling—no, no one. Alone… I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Sarah’s laughter

As far as we know, Mother Teresa never emerged from that silence. Mercifully for Sarah the silence ended one hot noonday as she rested inside her tent. Suddenly Abraham was bursting in and saying, “Quick, get fifteen kilos of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” It was no small order; and as she stood there exhausted at the end of the day, she could hear the conversation that Abraham was having with his three strange guests: “Where is your wife Sarah?” “There, in the tent.” Then she could hear one of them saying, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
At this Sarah could not control herself. After all these years? After I have prayed and wept and entreated and begged again and again for a child? Now, after my childbearing years lie in the dust of the past? Now after all hope is gone you say I am going to have a child? All she could do was laugh. I suspect she didn’t intend it to come out audibly as it did. But she couldn’t muffle it. It simply had to come out.
In her embarrassment Sarah tried to deny that she had laughed. Yet that laugh—an anguished combination of derision and despair—was the occasion of one of the most profound statements of the Bible, the very words that her sorrowing heart needed to hear: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
Nine months later Sarah’s laugh of bitterness would become one of joy as she brought her son into the world—and she and Abraham named him “Laughter”. Countless generations later and just twenty kilometers away their joy would be echoed in the “good news of great joy” proclaimed by the angels at Jesus’ birth. And Sarah’s story remains as a testimony to the utter faithfulness of our God, who is true to his promises, who in spite of our weaknesses and sometimes our strengths, remains forever faithful. And so we sing with the prophet Isaiah,
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
      and who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were cut
      and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
      and to Sarah, who gave you birth. (Isaiah 51:1-2)

[1]        Portraits of Bible Women, 36
[2]        All the Women of the Bible, 155ff
[3]        “Sarah (Sarai)”, The Jewish Encyclopedia, [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13194-sarah-sarai]
[4]       Lost Women of the Bible, 68
[5]        Bible Characters, Vol 1, ch 13
[6]       James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 543