Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Door in Heaven

Genesis 28:10-19a

Last week’s Old Testament lesson introduced us to two brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were very much opposites in temperament and struggled against one another even in the womb.  Although by the law and custom it was the first born who is the heir, the Lord tells the mother, Rebekah, that the older will serve the younger. The Lord’s favor falls on Jacob. 

Despite this, we learn from the text that Isaac their father loved Esau more. It isn’t hard to imagine how this would make Jacob feel. From his birth Jacob’s ambition and competitiveness are evident. He was born clutching his brother’s heel as if he was determined to be first. While Jacob is willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants, Esau despises his birthright and hands it over to his brother for a bowl of soup.  Jacob isn’t content with just that, however, but he even goes as far as to disguise himself as Esau and steal his father’s blessing out from under his brother. 

Cheated of his birthright and his father’s blessing Esau is enraged and prepared to kill Jacob.  Rebekah, in order to save Jacob’s life, convinces Isaac to send him away to her brother’s house to obtain a wife. With his father’s blessing, he departs on the long and treacherous journey.

Jacob finally has what he has always wanted. All his life has been a struggle. He has cheated his way to the top, but now he is alone wandering through the wilderness forced to flee from his home. He has lived the life of a loner by his cunning and stealth. His only ally has been his mother and now he is separated from her and will never see her again. This is where our reading today begins.
The sun sets below the horizon. Everything is dark. He lays his head down on a stone and sleeps.

Up until this moment, the text has given us no indication that God has ever spoke to Jacob. Jacob acts in such a way that shows that he is completely ignorant of the God of his father even though he has had God’s favor from birth.  He acts as if it were Jacob against the world, as if he had to fight for everything he had. One commentator says that “Jacob’s expectations of encountering Yahweh somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran were about as great as Saul’s expectations of meeting Christ between Jerusalem and Damascus!”

Now however, as he dreams, God reveals himself in a dramatic way. Suddenly he sees a vision of a great ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending upon it and God standing beside him!

The Lord repeats the promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and assures him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

In the Bible and in much of ancient culture, sleep and the state of dreaming, is considered to be a kind liminal space between this world and the spiritual realm.  It was believed that God spoke to people through their dreams.

In our state of dreaming, as our conscious mind sleeps, we become conscious of subterranean, hidden, realities that we are often unconscious of in our waking state.
Ironically it is in his state of unconsciousness that Jacob becomes conscious of the presence of God. He awakens in more ways than one and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
There is more to the world than meets the eye. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, 

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Sometimes we feel alone and forsaken in the world, that God is distant, and that heaven is some place far from earth on the outskirts of the universe, and yet God is beside us and Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses and innumerable heavenly hosts.

The vision that God gave to Jacob shows that there is an open door between Heaven and Earth. There is a communication between God and man. The angels—the messengers of God—descend and ascend on a ladder whose top is in the heavens but whose base touches the earth.

Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have seen in this vision an image of prayer. We ascend to God with our prayers and worship, we lift up our hearts to the Lord, and we have communion and fellowship in his presence.  But God also descends to us. Although God is high above, he has regard for his lowly creatures. He descends to us with his guidance, his correction, his love, and blessing.

What if instead of believing we have to claw our way to the top and step over our brother, we trusted in the power of God’s presence, and were content with his promise and blessing? What if we rested in the Lord as our rock and foundation, even as Jacob laid his head upon the stone? Would we not see and understand that heaven is always open to us and God is beside us?

Jacob’s vision is a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is an assurance of God’s intention to fulfill the promise he made with Abraham. God intends to make a way for fallen humanity to return to him through Jacob’s offspring. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jacob. In the gospel of John he connects himself with the vision that Jacob saw saying,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

 Being both God and man Christ is the true bridge between heaven and earth. In his very person the two are reconciled. He is God with us, God beside us.  He is the one who descended from heaven in order that we may ascend with him.  Through the blood of his cross the doors of heaven are open to cheaters like Jacob and sinners like us.

Alleluia to Jesus who died on the tree,and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Elder Shall Serve the Younger

If you have been following along in our readings from Genesis week to week you may be noticing certain patterns.

First, we have the infertility of the biblical mothers. God promised to make Abraham a great nation. His wife Sara was unable to conceive, but miraculously, in her old age, God grants Sarah a child, Isaac. Now in today’s reading we hear that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was also barren. The Lord hears the prayer of Isaac on behalf of his wife and they conceive. 

This is a theme that repeats throughout the Bible. Many of the great heroes of the Bible are born of infertile mothers. Their births are miraculous. This is true of Isaac’s mother Sarah, Jacob’s mother Rebekah, Joseph’s mother Rachel, Sampson’s mother, Samuel’s mother Hannah, and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. All of these stories foreshadow the miraculous birth of Jesus, whose mother was not merely infertile, but a virgin!

But the theme I want to focus on this morning, is the theme of sibling rivalry. We have already seen the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, now we read of the conflict between Jacob and Esau.

 Any parent knows that siblings don’t always get along! They bicker and they argue with one another, but they also often compete with one another. Sometimes such competition is a healthy and friendly rivalry, but other times it is bitter, corrosive, and even deadly. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that siblings behave the same way in the Bible, but there is such a definite pattern to these sibling rivalries that we must conclude that something beyond natural family conflict is being represented.

It was the custom in the ancient world, including Israel, for the firstborn son to inherit before his siblings. The firstborn son is given pride of place. This is called the law of primogeniture, and the Bible mostly takes it for granted. The odd thing, however, is how consistently this custom is undermined in these stories of sibling rivalries.

In these stories, it is almost always the second that enjoys God’s blessing above the first.  In this morning’s reading God declares, “The elder shall serve the younger.” God speaks through the prophet Malachi more starkly, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” God chooses the second, but he rejects the first.

I’m not just saying this because I’m the second born of twins either! There is a pattern.

The first sibling rivalry in the Bible is between Cain and Abel. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but he rejected Cain’s, which provoked Cain to murder his younger brother.  Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, but Isaac was the son of promise. God also chose Jacob’s youngest son Joseph above his older brothers. 

In the story of the prodigal son the oldest brother has always been faithful, but it is the younger son—who returns after squandering his inheritance—that receives the lavish love of his father. 

It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? God seems to be depriving the elder son of what is rightfully his by law and custom. So why do we find this pattern so often throughout the Bible?

The reason is because it is a type. A type is a kind of prophetic symbol. It is a person or thing from the past that foreshadows a person or thing in the future; it is an earthly reality that corresponds to a heavenly reality. We have already seen in the last couple weeks how the binding of Isaac was a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was a type of Christ and the Church.

Saint Paul wrote that the stories of the Old Testament occurred as types and they are written for our instruction. (1 Cor 10:11)

He identified Ishmael as a type of those born of the flesh and living under the law and Isaac as a type of those born of the spirit and set free by the Gospel. This basic pattern holds true in general for biblical stories about the struggle between the younger and the elder. It is especially apparent in the story of Jacob and Esau.

These two were twins but they couldn’t have been more different. Esau was a real guy’s guy. He was strong and athletic, an accomplished hunter. He spent most of his time outdoors away from home. He was the favorite of his father Isaac who enjoyed eating the game he caught.

Esau was the jock, but Jacob was the shy introverted type. He was a homebody and a bit of a mama’s boy. While Esau is noted for his physical prowess, Jacob is noted for his intelligence and cunning.

Esau is the first born and the description of him is striking. He is almost bestial, red, and covered in hair even as a baby. He represents our lower nature which is driven by appetite and animal instinct. He is the natural man which cares nothing for spiritual things. He is the mind set on the flesh which is hostile to God.  

His color, described as red, is also significant. In fact he is often called Edom, which simply means red, not only because of his pigmentation but the mess of red pottage he sold his birthright to obtain. Edom comes from the same Hebrew root word that Adam does. Adam is also named ‘red’ after the red clay of the earth that he was made of. Esau represents the first man, Adam, who was made from the earth.

Jacob is born second, after Esau, and comes clutching his heel. His name means “the supplanter,” because although younger, he was destined to rule over his brother. He is a type of the second man, Christ, who was born of the spirit from above. Although the Son of God was from everlasting, Jesus comes after Adam. While Adam bares the curse, Jesus—the second Adam—bears the blessing.

This isn’t to say that Jacob is all virtuous and that his motives are always pure. As we shall see, Jacob himself is a divided person. Jacob, the supplanter, is later changed to Israel, which means “may God prevail.” He is both the one who struggles but also the one who at last is victorious. His brother Esau is the reflection of his own lower nature which he must overcome.

These two brothers, the flesh and the spirit, the lower nature and the higher nature, the first Adam and the Second Adam, were struggling within one womb. Their struggle was so intense that Rebekah said,
“If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

Don’t we sometimes feel the same? Don’t we sometimes feel these two principles at war within ourselves? For what the flesh wants is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, and so you do not do what you want to do. 

We feel ourselves divided and at war with ourselves. Sometimes it feels like our lower nature is stronger. We can’t win against it and so we try to outsmart it.

Maybe we devise certain strategies to stay one step ahead of our wayward urges.  We hide the Halloween in the cupboard so as not to be tempted… Sometimes our lower nature needs to be placated with the promise of a reward before we do the right thing. Its like a child who only eats her dinner because she knows there will be ice cream if she does.

To those of us caught up in the battle, God reminds us, “The elder shall serve the younger.” Although our flesh sometimes feels so much stronger than our spiritual nature, the lower nature was made to serve the higher. Despite the appearances, “the one shall be stronger than the other.”

Saint Paul says, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you… If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Promised Bride

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The most important decision many people will make in life is who they will marry, who will be their spouse, who will they spend their life with. A lot hinges on this decision. The right choice can fill your life with happiness and joy, but the wrong choice can fill your life with misery and disappointment.

The book of Proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband's crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.”

The servant of Abraham, Eliezer, had been given an awesome responsibility: find a wife for Abraham’s heir, Isaac. This was a particularly important task because Isaac was the son of promise, the one that God had promised to give to Abraham, the one through whom Abraham would be made a great nation, the one through whom all the world would be blessed. It was absolutely imperative that the right woman be found to fulfill God’s promises.

Abraham gave Eliezer one criteria—and in doing so established himself as the first in a long line of Jewish parents—she must be a nice Jewish girl. He was not to find Isaac a wife among the Canaanites, but he had to travel back to Mesopotamia, back to Abraham’s people.

In those days there was no J-date—the leading online network for Jewish singles. In the Bible, the place where you went if you wanted to meet a potential spouse was the well. Not only did Eliezer meet Rebekah at a well, but Jacob met Rachel at a well, and Moses met his wife Zaphora at one as well. Think also of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.

When our reading begins, Eliezer is recounting what happened when he went to the well. Abraham told him that the angel of the Lord would go before him to direct his choice and so he asked the Lord for a sign. The woman who would give him a drink, and water his camels also, would be the one that God had chosen. This is sometimes referred to as “the Camel Test.”

There is a modern version of this test as well. When you are out on a dinner date, how does he treat the server and staff? Does he show kindness and respect to strangers? Whether or not he does, is a pretty good indicator of his character and what kind of spouse he would make.

Eliezer wanted to see if the woman he would meet would act unselfishly out of kindness of heart. Would she offer to water his camels too? Would she expect anything in return?

Rebekah, acted without hesitation to provide for his need when asked. Not only did she give him a drink, but she took it upon herself to retrieve water for his camels as well. It was second nature for her to do so. This was no small task either. Commentators remark that it would have taken 140 gallons of water to provide for ten camels. She exerted significant labor to go to the well again and again with water for the thirsty animals. All of this she did for a stranger. Abraham’s servant Eliezer watched her in silence and knew with certainty that this was the woman God had chosen.

The scriptures tell us that Rebekah was young, beautiful, and chaste but her preeminent quality was what is called in Hebrew, “hesed.” It is notoriously difficult to translate but is sometimes translated into English as the compound word, “Loving-kindness.”

Hesed is more than kindness. It goes beyond mere temperament to concrete service and action. It is kindness that acts for the good of others. It is kindness that goes above and beyond mere courtesy.  It is boundless, gratuitous, generosity. The Old Testament scholar Daniel Block defines it this way, that quality that moves a person to act for the benefit of another without respect to the advantage it might bring to the one who expresses it.” 

It was this characteristic of boundless generosity and hospitality that Eliezer saw in his master Abraham that he looked for also in the woman who would be Isaac’s wife.

It is this loving-kindness—clothing the naked,
providing shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the prisoner, caring for the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for the dead—love as deed that  is meant to distinguish God’s people.

Hesed is a covenant word. As well as being about love in action, it also denotes faithfulness, loyalty, and steadfastness. It is the ideal characteristic of a spouse.

It is also an attribute of God himself. Eliezer says, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His loving-kindness (Hesed) and His truth toward my master.”

Hesed describes God’s “covenant faithfulness,” and commitment to his promises. God has bound himself in loyalty and fidelity to his people. Loyalty to God demands that our lives reflect the same “loving-kindness” and “covenant faithfulness.”

God spoke to his people through the prophet Hosea, "I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion.”

All of which should be a clue that there is something more going on in this story. Just as we found last week with the story of “the binding of Isaac,” there is a deeper spiritual meaning to be found in this text. The Early Church read this story as suggesting a correspondence with God’s own betrothal of his people. As a picture of Christ and his bride the Church. We have been betrothed to Christ "at the well," in baptism.

Just as our lesson ends with Rebekah being presented to her bridegroom and the joyful consummation of their union, so scripture ends with
the marriage supper of the lamb, with his people, the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

But how will Christ recognize his betrothed when he finds her? By what characteristic shall God demonstrate the she is the one he has chosen? How else but how Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, knew Rebekah? God’s chosen will be recognized by her loving-kindness, by her deeds of love, and her covenant faithfulness.

He will know her by the cup of cold water given to the stranger. As Jesus declares in today’s Gospel lesson, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!”

When Christ returns in glory with all his holy angels he will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me… Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac

The story of the binding of Isaac—or as it is sometimes referred to in Hebrew, the Akedah—is a strange story. Let’s just acknowledge that up front.  It is a story about an ancient Middle Eastern wanderer who hears a voice from God that tells him to kill his first born son, and he does it! Or at least he has every intention of doing it.

At this point many modern readers say, “This is sick,” and close the book, turn on the TV, and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

Seriously though, a story like this is hard for us to accept, at least coming from a religious text.  The Bible itself condemns the practice of human sacrifice (Deut. 18:10). People in Abraham’s day, however, would not have batted an eye. This was the type of thing gods regularly asked of their worshipers. 

I would like to suggest that this rather strange and troubling story makes a lot more sense when we read it as part of a larger story. God revealed himself thousands of years ago, in very primitive times, to a man who came from a tribe of moon worshippers. It took many generations, but—beginning where they were--he was slowly teaching his people who he was. This is an important chapter in a story that is still unfolding even in our own day.  God was laying the ground work—way back then—for his revelation of his character and identity in Jesus Christ.

Our text begins, “God tested Abraham.” What was Abraham’s test? It often is suggested that this is a test about who Abraham loved more, God or his son.  I want to suggest that there is something more going on here. God is testing, or proving, the strength of Abraham’s faith.  God had promised to make of him a great nation through his son Isaac. The children of Abraham would be a blessing to the whole world. Did Abraham believe that God would keep that promise no matter what?

If we take a closer look at the text we find something rather puzzling. Listen to what Abraham tells his servants, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

Both of them will come back? Was Abraham not being honest with his servants, or did he honestly expect to come back down that hill with his son Isaac?

We cannot know what was in the mind of Abraham, but generations later the author of Hebrews wrote,   “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Interestingly enough, similar ideas are presented in the Jewish Midrash (the rabbis’ commentary on scripture),

Rabbi Judah says: When the sword touched Isaac's throat his soul flew clean out of him. And when… [God] let His voice be heard from between the cherubim, "Lay not thy hand upon the lad." The lad's soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future; whereupon he began to recite, "Blessed are You, LORD, who resurrects the dead." (Pirkei Rabbi Elieazer)

Isaac’s obedience, in allowing himself to be bound and offered for sacrifice was interpreted by some rabbis as atonement for the sins of Israel and a promise of the resurrection of the dead. The Midrash goes on,

“By virtue of Isaac who offered himself as a sacrifice on top of the altar, the Holy One blessed be He, will resurrect the dead in the future…so that He may set them on their feet in the Age to Come. (Mekilta Simeon)”

Did Isaac actually die and return to life? Probably not, but the author of Hebrews—consistent with some of these traditions—seems to see in this story a type or figure of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Abraham in his willingness to offer up the son of his love is a figure of our Heavenly father who did not spare his own son but gave him for us all. Isaac in his obedience even unto death, is a figure of our Lord who willingly laid down his life as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.

Notice that Isaac is not the unwilling victim in this story. The text says, “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.”

Just as Jesus is in harmony with the will of his Father in offering up himself, so Abraham and Isaac walk together. The wood for sacrifice is laid on Isaac and he carries it himself, just as Jesus bore his own cross to Calvary.  Even when Isaac is bound on the altar, there is no suggestion of a struggle. Rather Isaac goes as Christ who, “as a lamb who before the shearer is mute, did not open his mouth.”

Once again, however, we have the puzzling suggestion that there is something more going on. Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” 

Was Abraham merely trying to avoid the painful question? Again, we cannot know the mind of Abraham but his remark seems awfully prescient in light of what follows.
Just as Abraham is set to kill his own son, his hand is stopped by the voice of God’s messenger.  The deed is done. Notice God never instructed Abraham to kill his son. The word he uses suggests sacrifice but it literally means, “offer him up.” God had another sacrifice in mind.

Abraham raises his head, and what does he see?

He sees a ram caught in the thicket, but I want to suggest that he sees beyond the ram to what that ram represents. God reveals to Abraham that he is not like the gods of his neighbors who needs to be satisfied with the blood of sacrifice. He himself is able to atone for our sin and reconcile us to himself. The sacrifice that God himself provided was Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham—God incarnate—who laid down his life for the sins of the world.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

In this story, God reveals to Abraham—generations before the time—the anguish of the cross—the  anguish that God felt in handing over his only begotten son to die—but  also the joy of the resurrection. It was yet a further promise to Abraham of God’s faithfulness and of the greatness of his calling. 

Consider friends, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” How then should we respond to such faithfulness? What sacrifice is too great?  In the words of our Epistle this morning, Let us present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life