Category: Genesis

Sermon: God is here and I didn’t know it!

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow. It’s about Jacob and that famous ladder of his, but there’s much more to it than that. The format is a little different from my usual style, but each verse is so rich and significant, I decided to breakdown the text one or two verses at a time. I hope you find it helpful and that your Sunday worship is wonderful.

Genesis 28:10-19 NIV

10. Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran.
Okay, let’s stop right here because we need to remember the backstory behind this brief verse. Jacob doesn’t just leave Beersheba. He has to leave because his brother Esau is planning to kill him.

And why is that? you ask. Because these are brothers who don’t get along. These are brothers — even though they are twins – who are as different as night and day. When Isaac’s wife Rebekah gives birth, Esau is born first. But his brother Jacob emerges gripping Esau’s heel, as if he – Jacob – is trying to pull Esau back so he can be first.

But Jacob is not the first born, which galls him to no end later in life. To top it off, his mother, Rebekah, likes Jacob best because Jacob stays home. But Isaac likes Esau best because Esau is a hunter and an outdoors kind of guy. Plus Esau is ruddy and hairy, and a real macho dude.

And, it gets worse. One day Esau returns from hunting and he is famished. Jacob just happens to be cooking some stew, and Esau begs him for a bowl of it before he dies. (Did I say Esau is a bit dramatic?) So, anyway, Jacob says, “Okay, but give me your birthright.” Now the birthright is the right of the firstborn. It conveys the firstborn’s right of inheritance and blessing.

Have you ever been really, really hungry? Well, imagine that time when you were really, really hungry and multiply that by, oh, maybe a zillion and you get how starved Esau thought he was. So Esau says, “Why not? What good will my birthright do me if I’m dead?” Again, a little dramatic, but he was really, really hungry.

But it gets even worse.

Isaac is really old and blind by now. So, Isaac asks Esau to go hunting, and then make Esau’s famous stew (apparently all the guys in this story know how to cook stew) and bring him some. Then, Isaac says, I’ll give you a blessing.

Rebekah, the mother, overhears this conversation. She wants Jacob to get the blessing from Isaac, so she calls Jacob, fills him in, and cooks a goat for him – as quickly as you can cook a goat.

She puts goat skin on Jacob’s rather dainty, hairless arms to fool Isaac. By the way, nobody ever accused families in the Bible of being perfect.

So, Jacob goes into Isaac’s room with his stew. Isaac, who is blind, says, “Well, that didn’t take long. Are you sure you are Esau?” To which Jacob replies, “Yes, father, I’m Esau!”

Isaac is skeptical, to say the least, and he tells Jacob to come closer so he can touch him and confirm he is indeed Esau. Jacob does so, and Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the skin is Esau’s.” So he pronounces his blessing on Jacob.

Now not to excuse what Jacob and Rebekah are doing to deceive old, blind Isaac, but I’m sure Jacob rationalizes that the blessing of the firstborn is rightfully his because Esau sold it to him for a bowl of stew.

In the meantime, Esau returns, brings Isaac the meal he has prepared, and asks for his blessing. Realizing he’s been tricked, Isaac tells Esau that he can’t give him the blessing of the firstborn because Jacob already has it. (No one seems to know why Isaac cannot correct this injustice, but he can’t.)

Esau is hopping mad and says, “After my father is dead, I’m going to kill Jacob.” Rebekah hears about this. Realizing that Jacob had better leave home quickly, Rebekah tricks poor old Isaac into sending Jacob away to get a wife.

Which is why Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Harran. Wow.

11. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.

Okay, so back to our story. Jacob travels about a day’s journey and reaches “a certain place.” Well, of course he reaches a certain place, but why doesn’t the writer tell us the name of this place? Be patient, because the name will be very important. But to Jacob, this is just any old place, and he stops for no better reason than it’s nighttime. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Debbie has been having neck problems, and we have tried every possible remedy. Finally, she saw a physical therapist, and is now getting regular neck massages from Gayle Wright. I’m sure you wanted to know that.

But, before she did that, we bought several different pillows. We’ve tried buckwheat pillows, down pillows, latex pillows, fiberfill pillows, and so on. We have a lot of pillows. But we finally found a memory foam pillow with a cooling gel top that she really liked. So we bought one. Then I bought one because I was jealous of her having the good pillow. I will not tell you how much they cost because I am embarrassed to tell you how much they cost. But they are really comfortable. Really.

But Jacob was apparently not as picky as Debbie and I are because he selects a nice firm rock for a pillow. No wonder he dreams strange things.

12. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

Okay, this is pretty straightforward. This is where we get Jacob’s ladder and the song by the same name. But, of course those spoilsport biblical scholars now tell us it was probably a stairway or ramp that curled around and up, like the stairways on the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. Like the Tower of Babel. So, instead of singing the spiritual, Jacob’s Ladder, it might more likely be Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven!

Not the same, I know, but that’s what they tell us. In any event, the stairway or ladder connects heaven and earth. And God’s messengers (because that’s what angels are) are going up and down from heaven to earth and back. This idea of heaven meeting earth will be formalized in the Tabernacle and then permanently in the Temple. But this is our first glimpse of the heaven and earth connection.

But here’s the important part in verse 13:

13. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.

In the ancient world, at the top of the ziggurat God was to be found. Which is why the earth’s early inhabitants tried to build the Tower of Babel. And so the biblical writer uses a familiar image of the stairway, and God is at the top looking down.

God identifies himself to Jacob with a familiar Old Testament formula: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.”

Of course, Isaac is Jacob’s father, but the idea here is that Father Abraham is the first and key figure. That phrase, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be repeated often.

Let’s read the next verses to see what God promises to Jacob.

14. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

15. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

God promises Jacob five things.
I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. (v.13)
Your descendants will be numberless, ubiquitous, and a blessing to all peoples. (v. 14)
I am with you and will watch over you…(v. 15)
I will bring you back to this land…(v. 15)
I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you. (v.15)
These are the same promises God has made to Abraham and Isaac, and now Jacob.

16. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”

Finally, the crafty, cunning and not too likable Jacob meets God! Jacob thought he was running away from his brother, but he was really running right into the plans and purposes of God.

Jacob found out that no matter where you wind up, or why you got there, God is there, too.

I visited my Dad from last Sunday to Wednesday. Dad is 97, or closer to 98, as he told a couple of folks in Douglas while I was there. He was a pilot in World War II, and he flew C-47s, dropping paratroopers, and delivering cargo. He flew in England and North Africa from 1941 until he had to come back to the US in 1943. He had to come back because he was malnourished and developed foot drop. Apparently his group flew at night and other odd hours, and the mess hall was often closed when they returned from a mission.

He flew into some dangerous situations in both Europe and Northern Africa,
and was the first plane to land in Algiers after it was liberated.

But when he developed foot drop, he couldn’t operate the plane’s controls, and came back to the US to recover. After he recovered, he was sent to Missouri where he became a flight instructor until the war was over.

But the day after he was sent for medical treatment, his group of C47s came under heavy fire. The plane that he had piloted was shot down and the entire crew was killed.

Dad told me that story, and then he said, “I didn’t know it at the time I got sick, but God was with me and preserved my life.”

Just like Jacob, it is often in looking back on our lives that we realize, God was there and we didn’t even know it!

But Jacob also realizes that God was still with him. Jacob uses the present tense, God is here, not just was here. “God is still here and I didn’t even know it.” Here’s what happens:

17. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

18. Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.

Jacob recognizes that he is in the presence of God, and that the place he so casually picked to camp for the night was a sacred place, the gateway to heaven, the house of God.

And so Jacob names that “certain place” Bethel, which is made up of two words, beth which means house, and el which means God. Bethel, the house of God.

And then he takes his pillow, the rock on which he had his dream, erects it as an altar, pours oil on it as both a gift and symbol, and marks the spot as the place where he met God.

Jacob would go on to marry, have twelves sons, have his name changed to Israel, and have the tribes of Israel bear the names of his sons. But that story is for another time. –

Podcast: A Terrible Story with a Happy Ending

Detail from The Sacrifice of Isaac

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall. 

The story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14) has baffled Bible students and scholars probably since it was recorded. It’s a terrible story, but an important one. Here’s my take on what the story means, why God asked Abraham to do such a barbaric thing, and how it foreshadows what God ultimately did in Christ. Here’s the link to the audio —

Podcast: A Story We Might Like to Forget

Giuseppe_Zola_Hagar_und_Ismael_in_der_Wüste-1598x900

Last Sunday I preached on the expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar from the family of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 21:8-21). We spend a great deal of time on the Isaac story — the promise of God to make Abraham the father of a great nation — but, we often overlook the Ishmael story. God also promised to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. And, Ishmael as part of Abraham’s household is circumcised as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. In addition, Isaac and Ishmael never fight, and both attend the burial of their father Abraham. What does this Ishmael story say about our attitudes toward the descendants of Ishmael, the people of the Arab countries? Listen to the podcast and let me know what you think.

Podcast: Old Fathers, Laughing Mothers

abraham-sarah

On Father’s Day, June 18, 2017, I preached from Genesis 21:1-7, the story of the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. Considering Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, his first Father’s Day must have been memorable! Here’s the audio of that sermon:

Podcast: It Wasn’t You, It Was God

This is the message I preached on Sunday, August 17, 2014. Taken from the lectionary reading, Genesis 45:1-15, it’s the story of Joseph and how God intervened to save both Joseph and the nation of Israel. It’s a great story with wonderful insight into how God transforms us and our circumstances as part of God’s plan for our lives. The podcast is about 26 minutes. Hope you enjoy!

Sermon: Re-digging Our Fathers’ Wells

Libya_Water_Well_in_the_Desert_25b0a3d60c474f7cb2df203c6cd078b5

I am preaching this sermon on Father’s Day, June 16, 2013. I hope your Father’s Day celebration is wonderful. 

Re-digging Our Fathers’ Wells

Genesis 26:18 NIV

18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

Today is Father’s Day

Today is Fathers’ Day. As often happens on this day, dads are served their favorite breakfast, presented with handmade cards that say things like, “You’re the greatest, Dad!” and, generally made to feel pretty special on this day.

The idea for a Father’s Day to balance the honoring of mothers on Mothers’ Day was the brainchild of Sonora Dodd of Spokane, Washington. In 1910, after noting the success of Mothers’ Day, Dodd proposed that a similar day to honor fathers be set aside. She suggested her own father’s birthday, but apparently her pastor did not have enough time to prepare a suitable sermon, and so the celebration was delayed until June 19, 1910, where at the YMCA of Spokane, Washington the first Father’s Day was observed.

Unfortunately, the designation of a special day for fathers failed to catch on like Mothers’ Day, but Dodd enlisted retailers who sold men’s clothing, tobacco, and other accessories in the effort to promote and establish a permanent holiday. Father’s Day observances grew, but it wasn’t until 1972 that President Richard Nixon signed a bill proclaiming this Sunday the official observance of Father’s Day here in the United States.

But beyond the ties, t-shirts, mugs, and other gifts dads receive on Father’s Day, and despite the fact that the celebration has serious commercial undertones, there is a significant point to Father’s Day. Father’s Day celebrates the best that our fathers, or those who acted in that role, bequeathed to us in their examples, words, instruction, guidance, and care.

The Legacy of Abraham, Isaac’s Father

The passage I have chosen today from Genesis 26:18 is a rather simple accounting of Isaac re-opening the wells that his father Abraham had dug previously. This brief and to-the-point verse tells a very interesting story.

“Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.” -Genesis 26:18 NIV

Here’s the background to this short verse. God had called Abraham out of the Ur of Chaldees. God’s plan was for Abraham to become the father of a great nation of people which we know as the Jews, and the nation of Israel. But when God called Abraham, he was already an old man, and his wife Sarah was old, too. They had no children of their own, and so the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of a great nation was one they both chuckled at on more than one occasion.

In addition to that, they tried to help God out. At Sarah’s urging, Abraham took her servant, Hagar, and fathered a child named Ishmael. They did things like that then, and it was perfectly acceptable because not to have an heir was to have no one to care for you in your old age.

But God’s plan was that Abraham, who was 100 years old, and Sarah, who was 90, would have their own natural biological child. Which they did, and they named him Isaac. And so God fulfilled his promise to give Abraham a son, and to make Abraham the father of a great nation.

Before Isaac was born, Abraham was on a journey with God, living a nomadic existence. Abraham, the Bible tells us, would eventually have great herds and flocks, and a large extended family and entourage that accompanied him. And of course, because they were in the desert and wilderness a lot, they always needed to be able to find water.

So, on one occasion Abraham had dug wells to provide water for his family and flocks. The king of the region, Abimelech, had servants who seized the wells Abraham had dug, claiming them as their own. At an opportune moment, Abraham confronted King Abimelech. Abimelech had already asked Abraham to deal fairly with him because his had noticed that God was taking care of Abraham.

Abraham made a deal with Abimelech. Abraham presented 7 sheep to Abimelech, and said to him, “By receiving these 7 sheep, you are acknowledging that I dug this well, and that it is mine.” Abimelech said, “Fine” and Abraham named the well Beersheba, which means “oath well.”

Now probably 50 or so years passed, and Abraham died. Isaac is now a grown man, and his wife Rebekah is the love of his life. But, a famine grips the land where they are living, and Isaac turns to the King of Gerar, Abimelech, just as his father Abraham has done. The King, perhaps remembering the encounter with Isaac’s father, invites Isaac to stay in Gerar rather than go down to Egypt.

Isaac settles down in Gerar, just like his father Abraham did, and re-digs the wells that his father Abraham had dug, and names the wells the same names that Abraham had used.

The story ends just like the story of Abraham’s wells ended: after having a squabble with some of the shepherds under Abimelech’s rule, they finally come to an agreement that Isaac can use the well he names Rehoboth. After that, Isaac repeats the action of his father Abraham — he goes up to Beersheba and worships God.

The Lesson of the Wells

So, this morning, on this Father’s Day, I’d like for us to focus for just a moment on what lessons we can learn from these stories about digging and re-digging wells. There are three main thoughts I want you to take home with you on this Father’s Day.

First, from our fathers, both biological and spiritual, we can learn important life lessons. I am sure that Abraham shared the story of how God had called him from the Ur of Chaldees, had promised to make him the father of a great nation, and of the story of how Isaac had been born to a couple most thought too old to have children.

I am sure that Abraham told Isaac the story of how one day God called on Abraham to take Isaac, who then was perhaps 10 years old or so, to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. Of course, human sacrifice – even child sacrifice – was fairly common in that era. But I am sure that Abraham also told Isaac that he wondered at the command of God. Isaac was Abraham’s only hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise. If there was no Isaac, Abraham would not be a father, and could not become the father of a great nation. So, it must have all seemed very strange to Abraham.

However, I am also sure that Abraham told Isaac that story, and then told him how in the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to plunge it into Isaac’s chest, that God provided a ram as a substitute. Of course, Isaac was there, and I am sure relived those moments as Abraham retold the story.

Those wells that Abraham dug provided the water that made it possible for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, their family, their servants, and their flocks to survive. That water from those wells that Abraham had dug were the source of life in an environment of death. Without that water, no one and nothing of Abraham’s would have survived.

Those wells symbolize, not just water, but all that Abraham had done in obedience to God, and all that God had done in providing for and protecting Abraham.

The digging of those wells required planning, effort, and concern and love for others. And just like Abraham’s obedience to God, those wells symbolized the ways in which Abraham sought to care for his family.

I am sure that if I asked you today, “What wells did your father dig that were examples to you of his care and love?” you could come up with many examples. The point is that what our fathers have done, whether they are our biological or spiritual fathers, in order to care for us is as important as it was for Abraham to dig the wells to provide water.

The second point I want to make today is this: We need to keep those examples alive, to re-dig those wells, so they can be a source of life to others.

This is exactly what Isaac did. Isaac followed the example of his father Abraham. He found refuge with the same king, in the same country, that his father Abraham had. And, Isaac re-opened the wells his father Abraham had dug for the same reason — to provide life-giving water to his family, his flocks, and for his crops.

In our changeable society, we tend not to value that which has gone before us like we once did. Tradition is often used in a derogatory manner, as in “let’s get rid of that old tradition and do something new.” Well, sometimes we do need to do something new, but not all the time.

If we do not value those who have gone before us, we miss the lesson of the wells and the example of our fathers. Debbie and I are watching a series about the life of John Adams, second president of the United States. What was glossed over in the history of our nation that we studied in school was the difficulty in establishing this nation as a free and independent country.

John Adams was convinced that the colonies must become independent. Others were not so convinced, and after much wrangling, and great disagreement and dissent, all thirteen colonies finally came together to declare independence from England. But many, like Adams, paid a high price for their convictions.

In Chinese culture, ancestors are revered. So much so, that the ancient practice of cleaning the bones of the dead ancestors was, and in some places still is practiced. Ancestors were believed to have made the lives of their descendants possible, and were thought to still be important in living a good and happy life.

While we don’t want to adopt Chinese ancestor worship, we do need to pay attention to the examples our forefathers, and mothers, have set for us. All tradition isn’t bad. If, for instance, we paid attention to the theological struggles of the early church, and learned from them, we wouldn’t continue to make the very same theological mistakes today.

When Isaac re-opened the wells his father Abraham had dug, he did it for very practical reasons, I imagine. First, the wells had been dug once, and so re-opening them wouldn’t be as hard as starting over.

Secondly, Isaac knew that if he dug where his father Abraham had dug, he would hit water. The water was still there, where Abraham his father had first found it. Re-digging those wells meant that the water would be there, and it would be available sooner that if they started from scratch.

Finally, when Isaac re-dug those wells, he knew the struggle he might have. Sure enough, 50 years later, Abimelech’s servants also tried to take Isaac’s wells, just as they had his father’s. But, Isaac had the experience of Abraham to inform his own experience. When Isaac was successful in not only opening, but laying claim to the well at Rehoboth, he followed the example of his father Abraham and acknowledged God’s role in providing for him.

However, Isaac not only dug the wells, but named them the same names that Abraham called them. My final point is that we need to not only re-open our fathers’ wells, we need to call them by the same names.

Now, here we’re sort of on our own because with a couple of exceptions, we don’t know the names of Abraham’s wells. But let’s extend our metaphor and assume that the names of the wells are the attributes and values of Abraham that we need to re-open for ourselves.

We could take Abraham’s example of good stewardship and reopen that well. After all, God blessed Abraham with flocks and family, and Abraham was blessed beyond his wildest imagination by God. But that’s not the most important well.

If we had to pick one well, one name, to re-dig then that well would be the well of faith. Over and over again, the Bible says, “Abraham believed God.”

Listen to Hebrews 11 from a completely different era, probably over 2,000 years after Abraham lived.

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance,obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[c] 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

If there is any well we need to re-open today, it is the well of faith. Abraham’s great gift to Isaac, to his offspring, to the first century church, and to us today is the example of faith. Abraham believed God when God called him out of paganism into obedience. Abraham believed God when God promised to make him the father of a great nation. Abraham believed God when God promised to make him, not only the father of a great nation, but the father of one little boy. Abraham believed God when God asked for that boy’s life back as a sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that if he killed Isaac, that God could bring Isaac back from the dead, which is what would have had to happen for Abraham to have grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and to become the father of a great nation.

So, on this Father’s Day, let’s remember that our fathers have dug some wells that we still need. Let’s re-open the well of faith particularly, because it is at that well that we find living water.

 

Father’s Day Sermon Idea

Dad 90 bday

This is my dad speaking to his Sunday School class at his 90th birthday party. On this Fathers’ Day I am departing from the revised common lectionary reading for this Sunday. Instead, I’m preaching from Genesis 26:18 NIV —

18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them.

The title for the message is “Re-digging Our Fathers’ Wells.” The story from Genesis is that Isaac reopened wells that his father, Abraham, had previously dug, which were filled up by the Philistines. Of course, the Philistines were sea-faring people who realized that if they cut off access to water, they cut off the lives of their enemies.

The big idea of the message is that we need to reopen the wells that served as a source of life for our fathers, and which can serve as our life-source today. I’m going to examine the wells dug by our biological fathers, our denominational fathers, and our spiritual fathers.

Of course, I recognize that this is a “spiritualization” of this passage, but Fathers’ Day is a Sunday for remembering the contribution that our fathers have made to our lives, appreciating their examples, and learning from them. I’ll probably post the sermon text on Saturday. If you’re a pastor, what are you planning to preach on this Fathers’ Day?