Monday, July 31, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Jacob's Wives

Readings: Psalm 105:1-11, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, Genesis 29:15-28
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 30 2017

Jacob had a dream. A dream that a lot of people have had. The kind that has consumed generations before and ever since. He’s in love. His dream girl is called Rachel. Leah, Rachel’s sister was OK, she had nice eyes, but when Jacob thought about Rachel, “Oh mamma, that lady was fine.” He promises himself; “She will be mine!”

In our lives we have dreams and passions. We have dreams for our lives, for our relationships, maybe even for our community or our church. The lesson we learn from Jacob is that seeing our dreams come to something can take a while and we might not always get exactly what we expected.

  • Firstly, this passage reveals that we are broken vessels that have to live within the consequences of our own shortcomings.
  • Secondly, that we are surrounded by those who do not share our values and are as equally broken as our selves.
  • Thirdly, this passage has something overwhelmingly positive to tell us. That whenever love is real, it can change things. God has an unusual way of turning our dreams into His plans!

Firstly this passage reveals our broken lives

Let us remind ourselves of whom Jacob was. This is the mommy’s boy who deceived his visually handicapped father to get an inheritance that should have been his twin brothers. This is the Jacob who was doing all he could to avoid a confrontation with Esau, who had vowed, “If I ever see Jacob again, I’m gonna kill him!”

This is the Jacob who had become aware God was on his case after having a strange dream of a stairway to heaven. Far from comforting him, this dream terrifies him. It makes him rethink his relationship to God and gives him a sense that life may turn out better if he started trying to do things God’s way, instead of listening mostly to his mothers’ advice!

Jacob is no wide eyed innocent enduring his first teenage crush. Life was actually passing him by at speed and it seems relationships weren’t something he had a lot of time for. But then he sets eyes on Rachel and something goes ‘zzzinngg’.

Who can explain that? The mystery of human attraction! Crazy thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter if one is a sinner or a saint, once Cupid fires his arrow people are rendered helpless.

And it looks like things are going to work out. Rachel’s dad, Laban, seems to like Jacob. Because of family connections he takes pity on him and even offers him a job. When the subject of payment comes up Jacob says, “All I want is your daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage”. Laban smiles and it seems like it’s a done deal.

Seven years later it turns sour. Jacob is getting ready for his wedding night. No doubt there was much partying and probably a bit of drinking involved, but the upshot of it all is that when Jacob awakes in the morning, it is not Rachel laying at his side, but her sister, Leah.

Laban has turned out to be snake! He turns out to be as cruel and devious and sly and calculating and shifty and unreliable and untrustworthy and manipulative as … well … he turned out to be as much of a sneak as Jacob himself. They do say ‘what goes around comes around’ and Jacob encounters in Laban somebody who has ‘out-Jacobed Jacob’.

We sometimes think that in life we can escape our shortcomings and that we can gloss over our failures. The scary thing is they can actually confront us in the bad behavior of others who share our faults to such an extent that we finally see what fools we can be! How many times have we said, “There but for the grace of God, go I?” How often do we find that we recoil at others actions, because actually, we have a horrible fear we could have done that ourselves?

We never truly escape our upbringing or the mistakes of the past. They come back and haunt us in the most unlikely of ways. At events like school reunions, you go there recalling the good times, but sometimes memories of the bad times also resurface. ‘I can’t believe we used to call him that’ or “What were we thinking!”

Friends, we are all broken. Paul in the Book of Romans simply says ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23 NIV). Life can, as it did with Jacob, bring along experiences that reveal our broken-ness. That’s not a bad thing. Because oftentimes it’s only when we see where we are going wrong, that we start wanting to put things right!

A second thing revealed in this passage is that we are not the only broken ones.

The actions of those who are broken around us can cause us great pain. Laban hurts not only Jacob, but also Rachel and Leah. Because of the tension he creates between them all, he also will hurt their children. We don’t get to hear the whole story of Jacobs’ interactions with Laban, but I can tell you, things did not improve further down the line.

What we did get to hear in our story was Laban’s lame excuse for marrying Jacob to his older daughter instead of his younger one. He tells Jacob that, ‘Well, it’s just the custom around here. We don’t allow the younger one to get the inheritance before we’ve taken care of the senior child’s needs.’

Was this God’s way of making Jacob understand just what a rotten thing he had done to his brother Esau? Esau, was after all the oldest child who had deserved to be taken care of first, even if he was only older by an arms length! One of the twins had to be born first, and that counted for something back in those days. Once again some kind of negative karma seems to be impacting Jacob and enabling him to see the error of his ways.

We have no control over what others do to us. If folk are mad at us or uncaring towards us or disrespectful of us, then whilst we don’t have to be a doormat and let them walk all over us, we also have to accept that there are some folks we just can’t change. Why? Because...they are, like us, broken. That is not to excuse bad actions or reprehensible behavior, just to say that some people are resistant to change.

We don’t have a choice in the way other people act towards us, but we can choose the way we respond to them. We can choose to go beyond gut reactions and the search for vengeance. We can come to the realization that when we hold anger towards others, it is chewing us up far more than it is them.

And our model for doing so is our Savior Jesus Christ. In Him we see a compassion that refuses to be sidelined by those who reject us. As we take our hurts and our failures to God in prayer, so we seek for the strength to overcome our very human reactions, that they may become something more, something that carries the acceptance and love of God that we ourselves have found in Christ.

In the midst of this crazy story about Jacob we see a little miracle. Love changes Jacob. When Jacob realized he has been tricked by Laban, the natural ‘Jacob’ reaction would have been for him to totally lose it. To storm off back home to mother, who would create a fuss, and other family would get involved and pretty soon it would be like the set of a Jerry Springer show. Family Feuds part 2!

But what happens in this story? Jacob asks Laban; “What’s going on?” Laban lays it out for him and says if you want Rachel, then you have to work another 7 years. The miracle here is Jacob’s silence. There is no argument. Laban says, fulfill your duties to Leah, then get back to work”. We read “And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week; and Laban (after 7 years) gave him Rachel his daughter as his wife” (Genesis 29:15-28)

And this moves us quickly to the positive point in this story.

When love is for real, it can change everything
There is, of course more going on here than the fact that Jacob is crazy in love with Rachel. That is a huge part of it, but the other side of it is that Jacob is beginning to realize that the love God has for him requires him to change.

Jacob already knew God was on his case. He had understood that when he experienced the dream of a ladder going up to heaven and was aware that God was covenanting with him to walk with him and lead him in his life. When he met Rachel, he must have thought, “Yes, this could work!”

But Jacob also had to come to a place where he could be confronted by his sins in such a powerful way that he would determine that this time around, things were going to be different. Through the love of a woman and the love of God, change was happening!

We can run from our sins and our failings for a long time. But there needs to come, to all of us, those moments when we realize, we need help. And the only true hope of forgiveness and change is the love of God that we can discover in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only His life-changing Holy Spirit can take what is broken and make something beautiful out of it!

We are victims of our own actions and we are victims of the actions of others. Jesus Christ went to the Cross, as a victim, to totally identify with our situation. The story did not end in death, but in new life. In the birth of the Church. In the blossoming of hope of in people who recognize their need and encounter God’s love.

We like Jacob, live our lives, may well fall in love and face many strange twists and turns. We will sin and be sinned against. So we can learn from Jacob.

We learn that we are all broken.
We learn that, through the love of God, broken lives can be remade.
We can learn to watch and wait and trust that in God’s time, all things are possible.
And to God’s name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 17, 2017

“The Courage of Abigail" (Pre-VBS Outdoor Service)

Introduction

Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow. We'll be looking at famous Bible characters who were real heroes. People like David and Jesus and disciples like Peter and Paul. But there's one we don't often hear about. And her name is Abigail.

First Reading: Our first reading introduces us to the characters in this biblical drama! A mean man called Nabal, his wonderful wife Abigail, and how things went wrong with future King David.

Read: 1 Samuel 25: 2-13 “Setting the Scene”

A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings--he was a Calebite. While David was in the wilderness, he heard that Nabal was shearing sheep. So he sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing. Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'" When David's men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David's name. Then they waited. Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?" David's men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. David said to his men, "Each of you strap on your sword!" So they did, and David strapped his on as well. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies.

Part One – DIFFICULT PEOPLE!

Like it or not, in life, we come across people, who are well... “Difficult” to deal with. They can be young or old, rich or poor, strangers or family. In our first reading the difficult person is a rich middle aged man, who lives in a place called Maon and whose name is Nabal. Mean, mean Nabal is scriptures verdict upon him.

Here's a bit of the story we didn't read... to set the scene a little more. Some of Nabal's workers had been in the land where David's shepherds used to work. Now David, when he was younger, had been a shepherd himself, and David knew what a hard job it could be. The days could be long and tiring and hot. Sheep could be stupid and needed a lot of looking after. So when some of Nabal's workers, who were shepherds, were working near some of David's workers, who were also shepherds, David told his men to be kind to them.

And they were. They looked after them. Shared their food and drink with them. Protected them from enemies nearby. Trusted them not to take anything that wasn't theirs. It had been a a good and satisfying experience working with them. Now, the tables had turned. It was sheep shearing time, a very busy time in a shepherds life, and David's men were working near Nabal's men.

So David sends a message to Nabal. “Hey, Nabal. Remember when your shepherds, were working near my shepherds. Well, we treated them right. Please treat my men the same! We just heard in our reading that “He sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now that it is sheep-shearing time.... be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'"

How does Mean Mean Nabal react to David's men? He's horrible. “Who is this David person? And who is his father Jesse? I don't care how he treated my servants. I'm not giving his men bread and water. Why should I? I'm Nabal. I'm important. So important. I don't have to share anything with David... whoever he may be!

Well.. “Whoever he maybe David” was somebody destined to be King of all Israel and you didn't speak to David like that. When David hears what Nabal has said about him, he's mad. Really mad. David puts an army together. Tells his army, “Strap on your swords, we are going to teach meanie Nabal a lesson!” Uh-Oh. Trouble coming!

I'll be honest with you. I don't understand why people like Nabal can be so difficult. I don't understand how they get it into their head that they are so important. And that the rules that apply to everybody else somehow don't apply to them. Maybe they get so used to bossing other people around that they think they treat anybody that way.

But I just hope, one day, that they wise up and realize, that in particular before God, we are none of us THAT important. Because in life, often, what goes around comes around, and we reap the consequences of our actions, no matter how important we mistakenly believe we are. “Meanie Nabal” was about to discover that!

Right now, is a good to take a pause before we move on with the story, and move into that part of our service we call “Our prayer of confession.” Because I suspect we have all at some time or other fallen into behavior not unlike Nabal.

Isn't God awesome? Always offering a chance to be forgiven and start over again.

The story continues....
Second Reading: 1 Samuel 25:14-31 The Courage of Abigail

One of the servants told Abigail, Nabal's wife, "David sent messengers from the wilderness to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. Night and day they were a wall around us the whole time we were herding our sheep near them. Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him." Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, "Go on ahead; I'll follow you." But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. David had just said, "It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. She fell at his feet and said: "Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name--his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. And now, my lord, as surely as the LORD your God lives and as you live, since the LORD has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal. And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my lord, be given to the men who follow you. "Please forgive your servant's presumption. The LORD your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the LORD's battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the LORD has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the LORD your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant."

Part Two – FINDING COURAGE

You may recall from our first reading that while Nabal is described as“surly and mean in his dealings” his wife Abigail was described as “an intelligent and beautiful woman.” But she was a lot more than just clever and good looking. We'll be celebrating in VBS that she was also courageous.

One of the servants explains to her how David had been offended and was on his way with a whole company of soldiers to attack them, because Nabal had been so outrageously disrespectful towards him. The servant has tried to do something, but he says of meanie Nabal “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.

So Abigail does something very brave. She decides to take action without consulting her husband. Now... in our day.. that might not seem such a big thing to do. But back then? It was unheard of! Particularly if you were the wife of somebody as powerful and mean as Nabal. One can only imagine what he might have done had he found out what Abigail was up to!

What was she up to? Well she's gathering together supplies to offer David and his men in the hope that doing so will change their mind about attacking them. That was a huge risk to take. Not only was it going against her husband, but there was absolutely no guarantee that David would even listen to the plea of a woman like her, the wife of somebody who was now his enemy.

She loads up donkeys full of good stuff and approaches David. She can tell how mad he is. He's absolutely fuming! He's raging..."It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" What was she to do?

She gets off her donkey and bows down before him. She tells David... “Don't pay any attention to Nabal... do you know what Nabal's name means sir? It means “Idiot” or “Fool” and he's living up to his name right now! Don't waste your time dealing with a loser like him! Don't spill innocent blood on the account of such an idiot.”

Then she talks to David of how she knew that God was on the side of right, and that David was always doing the right thing and how God would always bless David. She even hints that she thought one day David would be King! This vengeful killing of Nabal wouldn't be helpful. If David was acting out of anger then he would regret what he did. If he left Nabal alone she says; “My lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed.”

Wow! That was brave! Telling somebody you thought would one day be the King how to think? Advising him to change his plans? Abigail's courage just jumped up another notch. If you didn't do things without consulting your husband, even less did you go around telling future royalty how to think! It could all go very wrong very quickly. We'll find out in the next reading how things turn out.

The source of Abigail's courage was that she trusted in God. She knew that it wasn't right that her servants and family should be destroyed because of the actions of one stupid person. A very rich, powerful person though he was, meanie Nabal wasn't greater than God... and God was on the side of right. She knew also that God had blessed David and felt that David was somebody who could be trusted to do the right thing.

It's not easy to stand up against powerful people. It's not easy to call out a bully or challenge somebody who is doing wrong, especially when everybody else seems to let them get away with it and go along with it. It's never easy to come out of your comfort zone and risk your own reputation. But that's what Abigail did. She did the right thing because she trusted that God was on the side of right.

She must have been a person of prayer. Prayer strengthens us to do the right thing. One of the songs we are going to learn this week tells us “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” The chorus teaches us about God; the God who is on the side of right. “You are the everlasting God, You do not faint, You won't grow weary, You're the defender of the weak, You comfort those in need, You lift us up on wings like eagles.”

Third Reading:1 Samuel 25:32-42 Abigail's Vindication

David said to Abigail, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me.
May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak." Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, "Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request." When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died. When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, "Praise be to the LORD, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal's wrongdoing down on his own head." Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, "David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife." She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, "I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord's servants." Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five female servants, went with David's messengers and became his wife.

Part Three – THE GOD WHO LISTENS

Things turn out pretty well for Abigail. David is amazed by Abigail's courage and wisdom. He thanks God for her. He tells her that if she hadn't come along, he would have killed every man belonging to Nabal... and done so out of anger, which wouldn't have been right. He thanks God that he had taken the time to listen to what Abigail had to say instead of striking her down. The “LORD, the God of Israel, ...has kept me from harming you.” He sees how the courage of Abigail had been an action that was rooted in her faith in God.

But now Abigail had to go home. When she gets there, it's not good. Nabal has thrown a party, is acting like he was the king, completely oblivious to the fate Abigail's actions had just saved him from. He really was living up to his name of being a “fool.”

When he's sobered up, in the morning Abigail explains what had happened. Nabal does not take it well. He has a heart attack and dies a few days later! It's a shame that he only realizes what an idiot he's been when it was to late!

I guess Abigail really made an impression on David when she went out to meet him with those donkeys and supplies. Now free from mean old Nabal, she receives a proposal of marriage from David. She seems happy to accept the offer and rides off to start a new life. And they all live happily ever after. Well they do in storybooks, but for David and Abigail there were crazy days ahead. Abigail is kidnapped by enemy forces. David rushes to save her.... but … no that's for another time! For VBS purposes our story about the courage of Abigail has been told! What can we learn from it?

I wish I could promise every lady here that if they do the right thing they will be free from all the difficult people in their lives and end up marrying a man destined to be the most powerful king the nation has ever seen... but, for so many reasons, that's not going to happen.

The perspective this lesson does offer to us is that when we listen to God and seek to do the right thing, God honors our decisions. Faithfulness takes courage. As we wait upon the Lord we find ourselves strengthened to do the things God calls us to do.

And you know.. it's often the little things that make the big difference. They may not be as dramatic as saving our whole neighborhood from destruction by a vengeful army, but it's living faithfully every day, in all that we seek to do, that builds us up and bless peoples lives.

There are those occasions when we are called to take direct action. I believe God is able to prepare us for such times and grace us with whatever we need to get through them. But such moments tend to be the exception, not the stuff of everyday life! This story is a call for us to build up our lives through faithfulness, so that we are always ready to act when God has need of us.

Such was the same thing Jesus taught His disciples. They spent a lot of time learning and listening, learning how to pray, listening to His teaching. It wasn't all action, but day by day discovery of God's ways and desires for their lives.

Let us pray that this years VBS will be an opportunity for everybody involved, organizers, students, teachers and helpers, to learn more about what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in today's world! May we live up to the theme of being “Hero Central – a place to “Discover Your Strength in God!” To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Rebekah and Isaac

Readings: Psalm 45:10-17, Genesis 24:34-67, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11 16-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 9 2017

The last couple of weeks we have been looking at passages from the Book of Genesis. Today we learn about Abraham’s search for a wife for his son Isaac. If I could choose just one word to describe the whole account it would be ‘Providential.

It’s a refreshing passage. As a church we are embracing new ways of doing things. It can feel a bit like we are trying to redesign the bicycle while continuing to ride upon it. You have doubts about this and that and “What now? and “How come?” questions arise.

This very human process of reorganizing and coming up with different strategies can sometimes make you question where God is within the process. Nobody likes change and churches... in particular... would like everything to stay as it was, or at least be given direct instructions and an actual map of the way ahead!

Which brings us to Isaac and Rebekah. The story of Abraham’s search for a wife for his son Isaac is one of the longest narratives in the Old Testament. Abraham had been promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Against the odds, his barren wife, Sarah bore him a son. But now Sarah had died and Isaac remained unmarried. Abraham needs to be sure that God’s promises will be fulfilled, before he too is buried with his ancestors.

We meet a number of characters in the story.
  • Firstly there is a faithful servant, entrusted by Abraham to find Isaac a wife.
  • Then there is Rebekah, the daughter of a wealthy family living in the homelands.
  • We meet Rebekah’s brother Laban who serves as a go-between on behalf of Abraham’s servant and the rest of Rebekah’s family.
  • Finally we of course get to hear of Isaac himself.

As the drama unfolds there is an air of uncertainty and numerous crossroads where events could take unexpected courses. These pivotal moments cause the reader to ask “What if?”

What if Abraham, despite all his wisdom and wealth, is now forcing the issue? He had made some telling errors of judgments in his past, particularly when it came to the women in his life. He had twice passed off his own wife as being his sister to save his own skin. He was so unsure of God’s promises that he had fathered a child through his slave girl Hagar before Sarah had become pregnant. Was sending a servant laden with gifts and promises of blessing truly the best way to find a wife for a son of God’s choosing?

And what if the servant proved not up to the task? Sure the servant prayed, but we’ve all prayed to God and not seen the specific thing we sought actually take place! So Rebekah turns up at the well whilst the servant is praying. Hey... coincidences happen all the time. It could be a trick of fate. It sounds just too good to be true.

And what if Rebekah doesn’t want to be betrothed to some family that had left town for new lands? What if her family don’t approve? What if they interpret the gifts as either being too little or too much? What if Laban turns out to be the over protective brother and does everything in his power to keep his sister near home?

And what if after all that has taken place, Abraham sending, the servant searching, Rebekah arriving, Laban negotiating, Isaac takes one look at Rebekah and says, “Come on Dad, she’s not my type. Instead of hanging out in this so called land of promise I think we should go back to the homelands where I’m sure I can do better for myself!”

Despite the “What if?” questions, the providence of God takes precedence over the pitfalls in the plan!
  • Abraham is shown to be faithful and insightful;
  • His servant is shown to be completely trustworthy.
  • Rebekah proves to be a most suitable bride and to be at a stage of life where she is ready to move on.
  • Laban is the most diplomatic and practical brother who sees in the events something more than just a marriage.
  • And Isaac… well Isaac is bowled over when the beautiful Rebekah comes into his life!

And they all live happily ever after. Well kind of… but not really…as you'll learn if you read the chapters ahead.

The Providence of God is the theme that lies at the back of the story. Everything that happens, happens because behind it all God is working out God’s purposes. And even as I say that... I know that very statement... is raising questions in my mind. What if people hadn’t co-operated? Would God’s plans have been negated? Is God dependent on us doing God’s will to make things happen? Or are we just puppets in some cosmic drama whom really have no say and no role to play?

These are just the kind of questions that float in and out of this story of Abraham finding Isaac a wife. The cynic may wish to take God out of the story all together. The cynic may say that Abraham was simply shrewd enough and rich enough to manipulate events in such a way as he could die happy.

They cynic may point to Rebekah being a savvy girl who recognized a good deal when it came her way. They may suggest that Laban's actions had more to do with self-interest than any notion of God’s goodness. The cynic may suggest that Isaac had to marry somebody and the fact that it turned out to be a pretty, well connected girl from the homelands was just good luck! Eliminate God from the picture and it’s just one of those tales whose only moral is “Well… that’s life, sometimes you get the good breaks, and sometimes you crash and burn.”

I vividly recall in 2008 participating in one of the extended meetings of our denomination, the General Assembly. We Presbyterians insist on holding to this notion that none of us has the whole truth and that God's Holy Spirit works through the corporate body of Christ. The cynic may suggest that God has very little to do with the proceedings of such meetings. That they are driven more by peoples self-interests and politics and insecurities than by the work of an awesome holy God. At times such criticism may be fair comment. But it’s not the whole story.

There were, I clearly remember, those other times. When grace broke through. When healing took place. When laughter and tears become the carriers of good news and vehicles of heartfelt praise. Such also applies to our lives.

This is the mystery of God’s providence. There are times when we look back, and… well at the time we thought we were calling the shots… but in retrospect… if it hadn’t been for the work of God in our midst… our whole structure would have collapsed into dust.

Then there’s those other times, when we were floundering around like a fish out of water, running around like headless chickens, banging our heads against imaginary brick walls… but through it all, a grace greater than our gravity, did something unbelievable.

If I could define how providence works out, on the basis of this story, on the basis of life experience, I can best put it like this. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. I'll repeat that. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental.

Abraham’s servant was uncertain how to proceed. Yet as he prayed along came the ideal partner for his Masters son. Rebekah was sure of many things, but as she helped a stranger water his camels there was a feeling in the air that more was at stake than hospitality. Laban held the best interests of his family close to heart.

Yet there was something more to the events around him than exchanging goods and observing traditional customs. Isaac presumed that there would come a time for him to begin a family. As Rebekah approaches, his heart skips a beat. Something more than coincidence was taking place.

At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. It is easy to look at the church of today and despair. Here at Mount Hebron we have our fair share of uncertainty about what our future church may look like. We easily become frustrated at our lack of growth and the drift of folk to congregations that offer a different way of doing things.

We can look back and say “What if?” We can look at our current circumstances and presume that God is not working in our favor. But you know, and I know, the gospel story is one that's all about letting go and things that die and become resurrected by grace... and about a God that constantly reinvents life in forms that are unfamiliar and strange.

Remember when we looked at “The Story” and talked about there being an “Upper Story” … basically the way God sees things, and a “Lower Story”... the limited perspective that often becomes our personal focus? The challenge? How do we align our lives with the “Upper Story” of God's way, rather than continuing to pursue our own agenda and trust only in our own solutions?

In this account of Abraham finding a wife of Isaac we see demonstrated the peculiar audacity of exercising faith in God to work things out. While there are promises of faith that we are to keep in mind; there are never any guarantees of outcome. We are called to trust in the providence and ability of God to do what God wills to do. As Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Thine be done, Father God!”

And as we consider the gospel message; was there ever such a mission surrounded by “What if’s?” as that of Jesus Christ? What if the disciples didn’t believe? What if He were not raised? What if His death were just another pointless and regrettable blip upon the pages of humankind’s gory history?

We are here to proclaim the God of providence acted in an unprecedented way through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here to seek for God to send the Holy Spirit to be in and around our lives that we may know the purposes of God for our own lives. We are here to pray, to seek God's way, to abandon our personal agendas and seek the new beginning God desires.

We cannot fathom all the mysteries of God’s purposes, nor explain the contradictions of faith. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. We commit ourselves to doing our best, knowing that it will always be an inadequate expression of God’s creative work. At the same time, we trust that God can take the fragile abilities and yearnings of life that echo in our soul, and do so much more than we dare imagine.

To the God who alone turns uncertainty to possibility we give all praise! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Mount Moriah – Place of Sacrifice

Communion Service
Reading: Psalm 13, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Matthew10:40-42, Genesis 22:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 2 2017

This morning’s scripture reading gave us the familiar, but nevertheless shocking, account of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son of divine promise, Isaac. What kind of father would consider actually going through with such an act? What kind of God would ask that of anybody?

In our contemporary setting, it is probably this aspect of the story that troubles us more than others; that Abraham is prepared to kill his child and do so with the justification that “God told him” to do it. At first glance it seems scandalous to suggest that we can learn anything from this passage about the love of God or the responsibility of those who put their faith in God.

But we need to dig deeper. We need to allow this account to speak to us from within its historical context, not interpret it according to the morality and expectations of the 21st Century. This is not an account that seeks to justify the abuse of children. On the contrary the climax of the story is the fact that Abraham does not go through with the murder of his son.

This is not an account that seeks to reveal the character of God, other than to suggest to us that God is more “unknowable” and “unpredictable” and a lot less “safer” than the Deity we sometimes seek to define and imprison within our carefully worded theologies and doctrines.

The core of this story is that it’s about sacrifice. It suggests that to fulfill our destiny as the people of God, requires surrendering our dreams to God. It is a passage echoed in the words of Jesus to His disciples “To find yourself, you have to lose yourself”.

Applying this bible passage to the story of our own lives, it suggests to us that if our dreams are ever to be fulfilled then we need to let go of them. This fly’s in the face of conventional wisdom which tells us that if we are going to achieve anything great in life we have to hold on to our dreams with all that we are!

Why this back-to-front teaching? Last week we were considering some of the mistakes that Abraham had made. The time he passed his wife Sarah off as his sister, because he was afraid that if Pharoah thought that she were his wife he would kill him. The time Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait for God to fulfill the promise of a son to be born to them, so Abraham went and fathered a child through Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar.

Abraham, though possessed by a dream – a dream that he was to be the father of a great nation – a dream that through his son Isaac such things were to be fulfilled – Abraham was not to put his faith in the dream, but in the God who gave the dream. Abraham had to take a ‘hands off’ approach if ever that dream were to become a reality. This was not something, as we’ve already seen, that Abraham was good at.

It’s a spiritual principle that is hard to see. We so easily confuse our own desires with what God desires for us. It’s a spiritual principle, that before God can truly use a gift God has given us, we have to be prepared to give it up.

In my own life the thing that comes to mind is my music. I was weaned on the Beatles and in my teens lived to go to concerts and loved to play in bands and dream of maybe one day making a living out of it. Some of the folk I grew up with succeeded in doing just that. A couple I grew up with have had their music in Hollywood movies, toured the world and recently did a sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I had an email from somebody, who knew me back in my rock band playing days, and they said “Man, we thought that was the kind of life you wanted.” Maybe. But that wasn’t what God knew was best for me.

Now becoming a Christian didn’t mean my musical gifts went away. On the contrary I then had the desire to use my skills for God’s glory. This was back in the seventies where in the area of Britain I lived in the idea of Christian Contemporary music hadn’t even been dreamed up. So I formed this Christian band.. and everything went really well and I thanked God for giving me this ministry of music which excited me and seemed to be raising Christianities profile!

No sooner had such thoughts entered my mind then the whole thing fell apart. I felt God calling me to a ministry of the Word and Sacraments and I didn’t see how the two could work together. And I was really mad about it. This had been what I lived for up till then. The band. The music. I loved it!

This is what happened. I reached a point where I got on my knees and said to God, “O.K. Lord. I don’t see the sense in this. I don’t understand why you would gift me with something and then take it away.. but go on.. take it… I’ll rip up every song I’ve ever written, I’ll sell the guitar and the instruments and I’ll never play a note again.”

I wasn’t fooling. I wasn’t playing games. I loved to play, but I loved God more. I sensed that spiritually if I didn’t sacrifice what I felt was one of the most important gifts God had given to me, then I could no longer be of use to God or anybody else. So I was convinced that I had to give it all up.

Having reached that point where I was prepared to give the whole thing up, it was as though God said, “Just Testing. Just wanted to see what was really important in your life. Music or me! Now that we’ve set that straight, you can keep the guitar, O.K?”

The crazy thing is that since that time hardly a week has gone by when music hasn’t played a part of what I’ve been doing. These last few years I’ve found myself playing music, writing theme songs, leading worship at Youth Retreats, in all sorts of unexpected little ways music has been a part of the ministry God has called me to.

Once I’d abandoned the dream of music being “My amazing ministry” God was able to use my musical abilities in the way God wanted to. As long as my hand was on the wheel, it was an idol, a sacred cow, a passion not under God’s complete control. I had to let it go!

Something of that seemed to have been going on with Abraham. He had to let go of the dream before it could ever be fulfilled. Nothing could be allowed to take the place in the heart that God was meant to occupy. Abraham needed to see that. We need to see it too.

This account is about “Seeing God”. Through his willingness to sacrifice what was closest to his heart Abraham broke through to a deeper revelation of God and to a heightened sense of God’s presence around him and within him.

The action takes place specifically on a mountain named ‘Moriah’. In Hebrew Moriah translates as ‘The Lord Provides’ or ‘The Lord Sees.” On a number of different occasions in the passage the idea of ‘seeing’ is mentioned. This ‘seeing’ is both on the part of God and the part of Abraham.

It is God who sees the place and the content of Abraham’s sacrifice. It is God who directs Abraham towards that place. It is God who looks deep into the heart of Abraham and sees that this test of faith that he is being subjected to will result in Abraham having a deeper fellowship with God than he had yet experienced.

Abraham’s seeing comes by the way of obedience to what he believes God is showing to him. Abraham goes to the place God has shown him. Abraham recognizes the importance of sacrifice in this meeting he has with God. At the stories conclusion, Abraham clearly sees that God did not require the sacrifice of Isaac, and it cements his trust in the God whom he had now encountered in a deeper and more powerful way than ever before.

In the context of what I was saying earlier about my musical dreams, my music was my ‘Isaac’. I had to be bought to a hard place, a place where I was prepared to sacrifice it, before God could really use me.

As you think about your life, do you have an “Isaac”? Is there a dream that is in your heart that takes precedence over doing the will of God? Where’s your passion? What has God gifted you with? And … what if God wants something more for you? Are you prepared to lay your heart on the altar and do with your life whatever God wants?

Or are you setting the conditions? Is your commitment to God along the lines of “God, I’ll do whatever you want me to, I’ll go wherever you want me to, I’ll be whatever you want me to… just as long as I get to set the terms and define the conditions and specify the game-plan!” Whose hand is on the driving wheel of your life? Who’s steering your course? Who’s the Lord? Who’s the Master? Jesus told His disciples “To find yourself, you have to lose yourself”.

I do not believe that God would call us to do anything as strange as sacrificing one of our children. We live in different times than Abraham. I do believe that God calls us to sacrifice our dreams on the altar of His love, in order that our whole lives are under God’s care and guidance.

What does that mean for us as a church? I have a church directory in my drawer from 2011. It has 50 photographs of folk and families who were part of the church back then. Of those, 8 are pictures of young families who choose no longer to be part of our faith community or are very seldom seen in worship. There are 9 pictures of people who have either moved away or joined other congregations. There are 6 pictures of families that have suffered bereavement and among those we've lost, are folk who were key leaders in the life and mission of the church. So... the pictures, nearly half of them, are of folk no longer with us because of a whole host of reasons.

When I arrived here and we spoke about New Beginnings... I don't think that was the scenario any of us quite envisaged. But it does remind us that we have to let go of the vision of what we thought the church might become, and embrace an unknown picture of what God has in store for us. It is both scary and exhilarating. Scary, because the past can be one of those “Isaac's” we don't want to sacrifice. Exhilarating because it means we really have to trust God that God knows what's next. But it's hard to let go.

Mount Moriah was the place of sacrifice. It was the place where Abraham drew nearer to God than he had ever done in his life. May there be “Mount Moriah Moments” in our spiritual journey; moments when we realize that God sees and knows what is best for us and we, correspondingly are prepared to give our best to God.

And as an inspiration consider these elements of bread and wine. Jesus sacrificed all that He was in order that we may know God's salvation. Never was such love as this! We taste and see right here the mystery and awesome commitment of God towards us. Yes... God will stretch us and challenge us and convict us as to the importance of putting His love first in our lives.

But here around this table we find strength for the journey and seek to move on more step along the road God has in store for us.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.