This is my version of the old traditional song ‘Cold Blow and the Rainy Night.’ It appeared on my 2013 album ‘Folk Songs and Renovations.‘ The words are traditional but I wrote a new tune for them which was inspired by a guitar riff by my friend Carrie Day!
This is something I’ve been working on for the past few days. It’s a melody composed or adapted by L. Bourgeois, for Psalm 118 in the Genevan Psalter (1543). It’s often used today as a hymn tune. If I get all the kinks worked out of it I might do a more formal recording of it, but I thought I’d try it out as a video and see how it sounds. Let me know what you think!
Cara Dillon and her husband and musical partner Sam Lakeman have produced a number of beautiful CDs over the years, including some with a little more instrumentation. But this stripped-down concert demonstrates what brilliant musicians they are. Cara’s voice is wonderfully expressive and she’s definitely at the top of her game. Sam’s piano and guitar arrangements are always just enough and never too much, and occasionally Cara throws in a little tin whistle for good measure.
And what better to give us during a time of pandemic than a concert with a healthy dose of traditional Irish folk songs, which probably express love and loss better than any other body of music on the planet?
Some of the media reactions:
“It is an inspiring and intimate delight from start to finish, the purity of Cara’s voice elegantly complemented by Sam on the venue’s Steinway grand piano and guitar”
“In the familiarity of her melody and emotive vocals, Dillon gave comfort to her online audience, creating togetherness across time and distance.”
“And what a glorious 75 minutes it was, beautifully set and staged, the music an exquisite patchwork of different hues”
Oh – and if you enjoy this concert, read this note from Cara and Sam and send them a donation. Like all folk musicians, their income has taken a huge hit during the pandemic.
‘God has no grandchildren’. I think I first heard this phrase years ago from Billy Graham. What he meant was that being raised in a Christian home doesn’t necessarily guarantee you will become a follower of Jesus yourself. It’s a good thing, yes—but there will still come a day when you’ll have to make a decision for yourself about the Christian faith.
Maybe you’ll make the decision intentionally: you’ll think and pray about it and decide “Yes—this business of following Jesus is exactly what I want my life to be all about.” Or maybe you’ll weigh up the evidence and think, “You know what? I just don’t think I believe it anymore.”
Or maybe you’ll make the decision unintentionally. You’ll get busy with lots of stuff, and you’ll take the weekends as times to go holidaying, and you’ll hit the ground running every morning with no time for praying. And slowly, gradually, you’ll leave orbit around God and move off on a new course away from him. It won’t be a single dramatic decision. It’ll be lots of little ones, but the cumulative effect will be the same: you’ll gradually find yourself far away from God.
This is a tricky business for Christian parents. We can take our kids to church and send them to Sunday School. We can make sure they know some Bible stories and watch some Veggie Tales videos and know some Christian songs. But can we actually pass our faith in Christ on to them? Is it possible for faith in Christ to be second hand? Doesn’t it have to be caught first hand from the Holy Spirit? Or, to put it another way: is it really enough for us to pass on our Christian faith to our kids? Isn’t it true that what we’re really longing for is for them to meet the living Christ for themselves? Surely we want them to grow a faith that’s truly their faith—a faith of their own.
This isn’t a new issue. In today’s Old Testament reading God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac” (Genesis 28:13). In later years, this same God will be known as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ but at this point in the story Jacob hasn’t taken his place yet in the family tree of those who know God for themselves. All he’s got to go on are the stories he’s heard from his father and grandfather about how God led the family out of Haran and brought them to the land of Canaan to live there. He’s heard how his father Isaac was born when Abraham and Sarah were nearly a hundred years old. He’s heard of the times God appeared to his grandfather and his father and made promises to them about a land and descendants and blessing the whole world through them. But he’s never had that sort of experience himself. His relationship with God is second-hand; he only knows God by hearsay.
I suspect some of our kids, and perhaps even some of us, feel the same way. We’ve heard other people talk about knowing God and feeling close to God, but somehow it seems to have passed us by. Perhaps our parents had a close relationship with God, but somehow we never picked up from them how that happened. We picked up the churchgoing habit, yes, but when we hear about a personal connection with God, we feel this longing inside. We wonder, “How can I find that? What do I have to do? Do you have to be some sort of special person, especially good and holy and all that? Or is it available for everyone?”
Let’s back up a bit and learn a bit more about Jacob. Last week we read the story of his birth; his mom Rebekah was barren, so her husband Isaac prayed for her, and the Lord answered his prayer and gave them a son. Not only a son, but twins! The pregnancy was tough for her; she sometimes felt there was a war going on in her womb. When she asked God about it, he explained it to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger’ (25:23). When the time came for them to be born, the first one was covered in red hair, and the second one was hanging onto his brother’s heel. They called the first one ‘Esau’, and the second one ‘Jacob’, which means ‘he takes by the heel’ or ‘he supplants’.
When the boys grew up Esau was a hunter who loved going out on the land; his father loved him because he liked the wild game he brought home. But Jacob was a quiet man who preferred staying home in the tents, and his mother loved him best. The time came for their father, who was old and blind, to give the paternal blessing to his firstborn. So he called Esau and told him to go out and hunt some game, cook it up and bring it to him, and then he would give him the blessing. Rebekah heard this and came up with a plan to get the blessing for Jacob instead. She killed an animal from the flock, cooked the meat, and took the skin and put it on Jacob’s arms and shoulders, because he wasn’t hairy like his brother. Then she sent him in to pretend he was Esau, so he could get the blessing in place of his brother.
Jacob did as he was told, and strange as it may seem to us, it worked. But of course, when Esau found out, he was furious, and he began to whisper dark plots: after Isaac died, he said, he would kill Jacob for what he had done. So Rebekah sent Jacob away, back to the land of Haran where the family had come from, to stay with her brother Laban. It was while he was on this journey that Jacob had the dream we heard about in today’s reading.
As I said last week, we’re not dealing with a family of spiritual superstars here! We’re dealing with an ordinary family who make mistakes and fall short of perfection by a long way. We’ve got a father who seems quite passive and will do anything for a quiet life. We’ve got a mother who seems manipulative; she’s got plans for her favourite son, and she isn’t above deceiving her husband to get what she wants. We’ve got two parents who play favourites with their sons, and we can only begin to imagine what that meant for the inner dynamics of this family.
What are we supposed to learn from this? Is this family supposed to be a good example for us to follow? No. As we said last week, God is teaching us that it’s not his policy to reserve his blessing for the most deserving specimens of humanity he can find. If God were to look around to find a perfect family to use to spread his light, the world would be a very dark place. The family of Isaac and Rebekah isn’t a perfect family, they’re an ordinary family, and this doesn’t disqualify them from being channels of God’s blessing to others. That should be good news for us.
But in God’s plan, it’s not enough for Jacob to have a second-hand relationship with God in which he only knows God by hearsay. God wants Jacob to know him personally. And the time when Jacob is afraid and fleeing for his life turns out to be a good time for this to happen. So we heard in our reading this morning how when he was running away he stopped for a sleep and used a stone for a pillow (which ought to have given him rather strange dreams anyway, I would think!). In his sleep he dreamt he saw a ladder from heaven to earth, with angels going up and down on it. And God stood beside him and spoke to him, confirming to him the promises he’d made to his father and grandfather. God promised to be with him on all his journeys and bring him safely back to his father’s house.
Most of us don’t set much store by dreams these days, but in traditional cultures around the world, they’ve often been seen as very significant. Jacob obviously saw it that way. When he woke up he said, “This is the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” and he took the stone he’d slept on and set it up as a memorial pillar.
Let’s be clear: his character wasn’t instantly transformed. It’s actually rather funny to read the bargain he strikes with God: “If you look after me and bring me food and water and keep me safe and bring me home and all that—then I’ll make you my God and give you a tenth of everything you give me!” Jacob hasn’t yet learned that you don’t make bargains with God. God has begun to transform him, but the process is going to take years—decades, in fact.
‘That’s alright for Jacob,’ you might say; ‘He had a dream and saw a ladder to heaven. But where is that ladder? How do I find it?’
Interestingly enough, Jesus refers to this passage in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. One of his new disciples, Philip, goes and finds his friend Nathanael sitting under a fig tree; he tells him about Jesus and brings him to meet him. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and says, “Here’s a true Israelite with no deceit in him at all.” Nathanael is puzzled: “How do you know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael is impressed with Jesus’ second sight: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these… Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:43-51).
Do you see the reference? In the story of Jacob, there’s a ladder between heaven and earth, and the angels of God are ascending and descending on it. But in John’s story, Jesus is the ladder. He’s the one who connects heaven and earth, and the angels are ascending and descending on him.
That has turned out to be true in my experience. When I was a child my parents took me to church and read me Bible stories and prayed with me, but somehow I didn’t have a sense of the closeness of God. Like Jacob, it would have been more accurate to say that God was the God of my parents; I knew him by hearsay, not personal experience.
The key to getting to know God, for me, was the day in my early teens, at the culmination of a period of spiritual searching, when my dad suggested I give my life to Jesus. I prayed in exactly those terms, and that night things began to change for me. Call it a conversion experience if you like, or my faith coming alive—I don’t really care what you call it. I only know that when I gave my life to Jesus, Jesus became like a ladder from earth to heaven for me—a road to a personal relationship with the living God, in which I began to know God for myself, and not merely by hearsay.
When I look back on this experience I’m grateful that my mum and dad didn’t just pass on to me the customs and traditions of the Anglican church. You can see in the story of Jacob how that might happen. Jacob has an encounter with the living God, and it’s so transformational to his life that the next morning he sets up the stone he slept on, pours olive oil on it and dedicates it as a memorial and calls it Bethel, which means ‘The House of God’. To Jacob it’s a precious place. No doubt in the years to come he comes back to it again and again, with thankfulness to God for what he experienced there.
But the next generation didn’t have that experience; all they had was the memorial stone. In time, they might even come to have an exaggerated sense of the importance of that stone in itself, and not just as a memorial for Jacob of the living God he met there. I think the customs and traditions of the church can be like that stone. These customs and traditions were started by people who had met the living God and been transformed by him. But unless we, their descendants, have a similar experience of transformation, those customs and traditions can be as lifeless as that stone. Passing on respect for those traditions where there is no real relationship with the living God is worse than useless: it’s potentially idolatrous.
I can’t give you an infallible formula today about how to meet the living God as Jacob did. God’s in charge of that relationship. He reveals himself to us when he’s ready to reveal himself to us. It’s not mechanical, like a slot machine—pray exactly these words, in this order and in this tone of voice, and you’ll get the prize! It’s more mysterious than that. People in the Bible are often told to ‘seek the Lord’; we get the sense that it takes time and effort to do so. We can’t command him to make himself known to us. All we can do is ask.
But we are encouraged to ask. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). The verb tenses in the original Greek suggest this is a continual action—keep on asking, keep on searching, keep on knocking. We can do this. We can pray simply, and persistently, “Jesus, show me the way. Jesus, lead me to the Father. Jesus, help me know God for myself.”
I don’t believe that anyone who prays a prayer like that will be disappointed forever. I actually believe Jesus has been standing at our elbows for years, waiting patiently for us to pray this sort of prayer. And I believe that, as we begin to experience his answer, like Jacob, we’ll be transformed. Not all at once, of course! For decades after his first meeting with God, Jacob was still a deeply flawed human being, and God had to take drastic measures on a couple of occasions to bring him face to face with his own need. For us, too, the moment of genuine encounter with the living God is the beginning of a lifetime’s journey of transformation.
But a journey begins with a single step. And if you feel this morning as if you haven’t yet taken that step, let me suggest that you begin to pray, and keep on praying persistently, that Jesus will show you the way to the Father. Sooner or later, that prayer will be answered, and you will never be the same again.
Here’s a video version of my sermon for July 12th:
And here’s an approximation of what was said (I don’t preach from a full manuwcript, so it won’t be word for word!)
As we’ve been reading the stories from Genesis together over the past few weeks, we’ve noticed a few times how honest the Bible is about the sins and weaknesses of its heroes and heroines. When you think about it, how could it be otherwise? The Bible tells stories of God’s work through ordinary human beings, and human beings are a mixture of good and evil. We’re made in the image of God, but we’re also infected by sin, which we’ve defined in the past as our human propensity to mess things up. This is the material God has to work with! Yes, he rejoices in our gifts and strengths, but he often has to make allowances for our stubbornness and selfishness as well.
In today’s Old Testament reading we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, the grandchildren of Abraham. If you’ve been following on for the last few weeks you’ll remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait until their old age to have a child. God first spoke to Abraham when he was seventy-five years old, promising this childless couple that they would be the ancestors of a great nation. But it was twenty-five years before the promise was fulfilled, and Sarah gave birth to the miracle child, Isaac.
This miracle motif comes up several times in the Genesis story. In today’s story, we read that ‘Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21). The same thing happens in the next generation: Isaac’s son Jacob has several wives, but his favourite is Rachel. However, for many years she seems unable to have children, until finally the Lord hears her prayer and gives her the gift of a son, Joseph, who turns out to be the saviour of the whole family when the great famine comes upon the land.
Why is there this constant theme of barrenness followed by what seems like miraculous conception? What are the authors of Genesis trying to get across to us? I believe they’re trying to tell us that the story of God’s people, Israel, isn’t merely a story of human expertise and strength; it’s the story of God’s miraculous intervention in the history of the world. The world is going nowhere; like the womb of Rebekah, it’s barren. God created a world full of wonder, but human history has been poisoned by sin, and if we read the first few chapters of Genesis we can see sin in all its darkness and horror. If the world is going to be saved, it needs more than human expertise and wisdom; it needs a miraculous act of God to begin to put things right again.
So what does God do? He doesn’t perform an act of judgement like the flood, or send a great military victory. He creates a new community, a people who will learn his ways so they can be a light for the nations. In later years they came to see themselves as God’s chosen people, but that never meant that God was only concerned for them, and not the people around them. No—God’s original promise to Abraham said, ‘In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3).
You and I stand in continuity with that promise today. Our Lord Jesus Christ has come from the family of Abraham, and his gospel message has gone out to the whole world. The blessing promised to Abraham has spread through all the earth, just as God promised! And God has called the Church to carry on the work of spreading the light and love of God everywhere we go. As we love others in the name of Jesus and as we spread the gospel and invite others to follow Jesus, we’re taking our place in that great plan of God that started nearly four thousand years ago when wrinkled old Sarah had a baby and called him Isaac.
But sometimes that work seems to hit a roadblock. Sometimes churches seem to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. Sometimes we focus inward, on our own survival or our own life, and we don’t look out in love to the world God wants to bless through us. Sometimes we forget the call to go out and make new disciples and we come up with all sorts of sophisticated reasons why evangelism is not such a good idea after all. Sometimes we get absorbed in the creation of beautiful buildings and splendid liturgies and forget that Jesus told us to serve him in the poor and needy. And sometimes churches are consumed by conflict—conflict in denominations, or at the local level—as flawed and imperfect human beings bring their insecurities and power struggles into the church with them.
What do we do when we hit a roadblock like this? Often times what happens is that the leaders lead, the managers manage, the visionaries share their visions, the facilitators facilitate, and so it goes on. Dioceses send in consultants, and consultants help churches come up with plans, and committees set goals and objectives, and off we go. And let me hasten to add, there’s nothing wrong with any of this.
Unfortunately, though, we sometimes forget what Isaac did when he and his wife Rebekah ran into the roadblock of childlessness. Genesis tells us simply, ‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren’ (25:21a). This story is told in a very simple and straightforward way. It doesn’t say that Isaac went through a complicated liturgy, offering a thousand rams and a thousand lambs in sacrifice to God, like some of the later Israelite kings. It sounds more like a child coming to her mom and saying, “Mom, can I have a piece of cake?” And Mom replies, “Of course you can! I’ll get one for you right now”.
Note that this prayer was not answered quickly. Verse 20 tells us that Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah (we’re not told how old she was), and verse 26 says that he was sixty when Esau and Jacob where born. Given the probability of a couple of years of trying before he started praying the prayer, that’s still eighteen years of praying and not giving up. I’m reminded of the time when Jesus told his disciples the story of the widow and the unjust judge; Luke says this parable was about ‘their need to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1). And this is what Isaac did, for about eighteen years.
Do I need to point out that Isaac wasn’t exactly a spiritual superstar? He comes across in the book of Genesis as a quiet man, who is easily manipulated by his clever wife. Later on in the next chapter she devises a plan to make sure the younger son Jacob, who is her favourite, gets the paternal blessing from Isaac rather than his favourite, Esau, the older son. Apparently she knew her husband well, and she knew how to mould him to do what she wanted. Also, in the next chapter we find Isaac doing exactly what his father Abraham had done: He went to live in a foreign country for a while in a time of famine, but he was afraid the locals would kill him and steal his wife. So he asked her to pretend she was his sister, so this wouldn’t happen. No, this isn’t a spiritual superstar we’re talking about here! This is just Isaac, who likes a quiet life and enjoys taking his older boy out trout fishing on Saturday afternoons!
Let me be frank: in the Bible God doesn’t seem to be picky about whose prayers he hears! Let’s remember some of the people whose prayers got answered in the Bible. There’s Moses, who killed an Egyptian and buried his body in the sand to try to hide the crime. There’s David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, and then had the soldier killed so that he could take Bathsheba for himself. There’s Solomon, a king who apparently had seven hundred wives. There’s Paul, who before his conversion worked hard to stamp out the church by having Christians arrested and executed. Actually, even after his conversion he doesn’t always seem to have been a particularly pleasant guy to be around!
So please don’t think you have to be some kind of spiritual hero before you can pray and have your prayers answered. The prayers of the Bible aren’t the prayers of spiritual heroes; they’re the prayers of ordinary human beings like us, and some of them are definitely not nice people. If you doubt that, read the book of psalms. If God only heard the prayers of spiritual heroes, no one’s prayers would ever be heard.
So here’s the people of God in microcosm, the little family of Isaac and Rebekah. They believe God has called them to be part of the family line of his chosen people, but at the moment their future isn’t going anywhere, and so they do the best possible thing they could in the circumstance: they pray. Now let me ask you: do we do that?
What’s the place of prayer in our life as a congregation? When we read the stories of the early church, it seems as if prayer was at the centre of everything they did. I’m not just talking about formal, liturgical prayer—the sort of thing we do on Sunday mornings. I’m thinking about the day of Pentecost, when they had been meeting for long periods of prayer together over a ten-day period, and then the Holy Spirit fell on them, and the explosive growth of the early church began. I’m thinking about the times in Acts when they were being hauled before the ruling council and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus—and sometimes whipped as well. Their first response when they got home afterwards? They prayed together. I’m thinking about Acts 13, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the early church, when Paul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch to spread the gospel in what is now Turkey. How did it begin? When they were meeting together for a long period of prayer and fasting, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke to them: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2).
Prayer isn’t just about getting what we want from God. Of course, in Isaac and Rebekah’s case, that’s exactly what it was about: having the children they longed for. But prayer isn’t a slot machine and it’s not magic; it’s more about aligning ourselves with God’s will than it is bending God’s will to our own. The main benefit of prayer is that it draws us closer to the God who made us and who longs for us to know him better. And when we pray together—honest prayer, that is—it draws us closer to each other as well.
One of the real joys of the past three months, for me, has been to discover how many people are really hungry to pray together. Not long after the Covid-19 shutdown started, we began holding daily prayer on Facebook Live, at 8.30 in the morning and 9.15 at night. Almost immediately, people started coming. Now, after three months, we’re averaging about ten people every morning and twenty every evening. And about 40% of them are not members of our parish! Some are parishioners of mine from former parishes I’ve served in, and some of them are friends and relatives of people in this parish. But prayer has bridged the physical distances between us and drawn us together into a community of faith. If you haven’t sampled those little daily services yet, I strongly encourage you to try them out. The videos are all archived on our Facebook page, so even if you’re busy when they’re live, you can join in after the fact!
But prayer isn’t only important for us as a community; it’s also important for us as individuals. Sometimes as individuals we hit barren times in our lives, when all the joy seems to have drained away and nothing seems to be working out the way we want it to. At times like that, it can make a huge difference to turn to God and pray.
Remember, you don’t have to be a spiritual superstar to do this. Very few people in the Bible were spiritual superstars; they were just ordinary flawed human beings like you and me. And you don’t have to pray particularly long prayers, either. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, which is a very short prayer! Sometimes the best thing to do is just to get alone with God and spend time in silence, paying attention to his presence and his still, small voice in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be very simple. And if it seems hard at first, remember that we all had to start somewhere, and the universal testimony of Christians is that practice helps! And also remember what we said earlier on: Isaac prayed this prayer for a long time. Perseverance—patience—faithfulness for the long haul—this is incredibly important. As Luke says in his gospel, we need ‘to pray always and not lose heart’ (Luke 18:1).
‘Isaac prayed to Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren; and Yahweh granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived’ (25:21).
‘Isaac prayed.’ Are we ready to learn from his example?
Here’s a video of my sermon for Sunday July 5th
And here’s an approximation of the text (I say ‘an approximation’, because I don’t preach from a full manuscript)
I’ve heard Doug Sanderson say several times that the book of Acts is his favourite book of the Bible. I can certainly understand that feeling!
The book of Acts tells the story of the early days of the Christian Church, when things were a lot simpler, smaller, and less institutional. There was very little structure and planning and organisation and tradition, but Holy Spirit was powerfully at work. The gospel spread around the ancient world like wildfire, and thousands of people turned to Christ.
But of course, it wasn’t all rosy in the garden! When we actually read Acts, we find stories of Christian missionaries quarreling with each other and parting company. Jewish and Gentile Christians couldn’t agree on whether or not you needed to be Jewish in order to be Christian. People pretended they’d given all their possessions to God when secretly they’d kept something back. And we haven’t even mentioned the fact that Christians were always getting arrested and punished because of their loyalty to Jesus!
That’s the way it is with idealism. Idealism is important—it can inspire us not to be satisfied with the status quo—but the down side is that sometimes it can present us with an overly simplistic view of reality. Genuine reality is always more messy.
It struck me a few years ago that the Book of Genesis is the Old Testament equivalent of the Book of Acts. Later on in the Old Testament we get the story of the nation of Israel, which eventually becomes a mighty empire with kings, armies, and bureaucrats—not to mention a huge expensive temple with a priesthood and sacrifices and laws about who’s in and who’s out. But in Genesis, that’s all still in the future. In Genesis, God chooses a single family—the family of Abraham—and guides its development over three or four generations. There’s a promise of much larger things to come—God tells Abraham his descendants will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore—but none of that has happened yet. There’s no priesthood, no written law, no traditions. There’s just God speaking, God calling, and people listening and responding.
Or ‘not’. Actually, often ‘not’! The people described in Genesis are every bit as stubborn and cantankerous as we are. They refuse to listen to God, they have feuds, they take moral short-cuts, and their family arrangements are very colourful by our standards. And I’m glad about that. I’m all for a life of simple faith in God, but let’s be clear that no-one’s ever practiced it perfectly. No one’s even come near. Not even in the Bible. And especially not in Genesis or Acts!
Today in our Old Testament reading we have a rather confusing set of excerpts from the story of Abraham’s son, Isaac. Let me quickly put them in context for you.
If you’ve been following our readings for the past few Sundays, you’ll know that Isaac’s parents, Abraham and Sarah, were childless. This was a problem—not just because it was such a sadness to them, but also because God had promised Abraham to make of him a great nation; ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3). Later on, God told him his descendants would be more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.
But Abraham had to wait twenty-five years, until he was nearly a hundred years old, for that promise to be fulfilled. By the time Isaac was born, Sarah was well past the years of natural child-bearing; this birth was nothing short of a biological miracle. Those twenty-five years had been hard for Abraham and Sarah. At one point, in a moment of desperation, Sarah had given her slave girl to Abraham so he could have a child by her; in Sarah’s view, God obviously needed a bit of help!
But eventually, against all the odds, Isaac was born. It didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. The slave-girl’s son Ishmael was now a problem to Sarah, and she made sure he was driven out of the family home; no one was going to take precedence over her boy. Sarah conveniently forgot that the whole ‘sleeping with the slave girl’ idea had been hers in the first place!
And so we come to today’s story. It’s a long chapter, Isaac has grown up and he needs a wife. Abraham’s family aren’t originally from Canaan; they’re from Ur of the Chaldees, near modern Iraq. They came to Canaan by way of Haran, where Abraham’s brother and other members of his extended family still live. Abraham wants his son to marry someone in the family, not one of the local girls. And so he sends his servant back to Haran; he’s confident God will guide him to the girl he has in mind for Isaac.
It’s a long journey in the ancient world; four hundred miles by camel. On the way we can imagine Abraham’s servant doing a lot of praying. He prayed when he got to Haran, too:
“O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink’, and who will say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).
And that’s exactly how it worked out. The girl who came down to the spring was actually Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel. Just as the servant had prayed, she offered to water his camels, and when he asked her about her family he discovered she was his master’s grandniece. She took him to meet the family, he explained his mission, and they agreed that she should go back with him and marry Isaac—marriage to a first cousin once removed being quite acceptable in those days. Of course, there was no nonsense about falling in love first; in the ancient world, that expectation was frowned upon!
If we carry the story on a bit, we discover that the basic family weirdness continues into the next generation. Like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebekah has difficulty conceiving a child. Eventually Isaac prays for her, and she gives birth to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau is a few minutes older, and when he grows up he becomes his dad’s favourite, because he’s a great hunter and Isaac enjoys the wild meat he brings home. But Rebekah has a soft spot for the younger one, Jacob, and eventually she manipulates her husband and deceives him into mistakenly giving his parental blessing to the younger son, not the older. This leads to anger and the threat of violence, and Jacob has to run away from home and go back to Haran for twenty years, where he can be safe from his brother. But more about that in the next few weeks.
What’s this got to do with us today?
Let’s go back to what I said a few minutes ago: Genesis is the Book of Acts of the Old Testament. Those were the days before Israel became a nation or an empire, just like Acts describes the days when the church was a movement and a community rather than an organization. In those days the fire of personal faith burned hot and pure. Or so it seems to us, anyway.
We actually have no idea how Abraham heard the voice of the one true God, Yahweh, speaking to him. We don’t even know whether Abraham believed that there was only one true god; it seems unlikely, given that most people in his day believed in many gods. But we do know that Abraham and his family would have been in a minority in worshipping Yahweh, and especially in not using idols in their worship. In the same way, the Christians in Acts would have been a minority; this message about Jesus was new, and most people didn’t believe it. The church consisted of small house fellowships scattered around the cities of the Mediterranean world. It wasn’t the majority world religion, like it is today. It was an incredibly fragile movement. And perhaps that fragility is where we can connect.
In the stories I’ve told you this morning we’ve seen two instances where the community almost died. It was necessary for both Sarah and Rebekah to have children, so that the community of faith could continue. But it proved impossible, humanly speaking, for them to give birth. They needed a miracle to help them do it. The entire continuing existence of this tiny community of faith was a miracle from God. Without God, it could not have happened.
When he arrived in Haran, Abraham’s servant prayed “O Yahweh, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham” (24:12). That phrase ‘steadfast love’ translates the Hebrew word ‘chesed’; the King James Version has ‘loving kindness’, but ‘loyalty’ would also be a good translation. It’s not just that God loves Abraham and his family; it’s that he has committed himself to loving them, through thick and thin, whether they’re lovable or not. That’s what this little community of faith is based on: not human fertility or wisdom or achievement or organization or skill, but God’s steadfast love.
And that’s true of us as well. There are times when our community of faith feels very fragile. Lots of churches seem to be closing down these days, especially in small rural communities. And even in our church, which is younger than most, when we looked around on a Sunday morning (in the days when we could look around on Sunday mornings!), we oldsters seemed to be rather better represented that the youngsters!
Covid-19 also has churches worried. Not all churches are doing as well at staying together as we are at St. Margaret’s. And many are in real financial trouble. Even here, the pandemic has been a blow to our community life, and it’s hit us right as we were on the brink of starting our building project. Our ministry staff and volunteers are having to work really hard to keep the community together, and the technological learning curve has been steep. I can tell you, as the rector, that it often feels fragile to me.
That worries us. And we certainly need to think about it, and make good and wise plans to deal with it. But let’s remind ourselves of this one fact: the continuing existence of the church is ultimately based on God’s steadfast love, not any human plan or wisdom or strength. God had to make it possible for wrinkled old Sarah to have a baby. God had to give supernatural guidance to Abraham’s servant so he would meet the right girl at the right time. Yes, God’s people have to be faithful, but we also have to be full of faith—faith in the steadfast love of God! And that love is steadfast, even when we’re not!
Let’s be honest: the church is not made up of super-spiritual types. It never has been! Genesis tells us that when Abraham was afraid the folks around him would kill him to steal his wife, he asked her to pretend she was his sister. Later on, Sarah suggested her husband sleep with her slave girl to raise up children for her—and then when her own son was born, she drove out the slave girl’s son. Rebekah favoured her son Jacob, but Isaac favoured Esau. And Jacob didn’t learn; when he grew up and had kids, he had a favourite too, Joseph—with the result that his family was split apart by the resentment of Joseph’s siblings.
These are the kind of people God works with: flawed, imperfect people. God has no choice about this; there are no other kinds of people. God doesn’t only work with traditional families with two opposite-sex parents and 2.1 kids. He works with families like Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s. He works with blended families, single parent families, single people, gay couples, and those whose marriages are in trouble and don’t dare admit it to their church friends. It’s perfectly possible to be full of faith and struggling with weaknesses and sins and failings at the same time. We all do it. But God is patient and steadfast, and he never abandons us.
Brennan Manning calls this ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’—the idea that we’re all ragamuffins, but God loves us anyway. But Genesis goes further: God loves ragamuffins, and uses them to build his church. The community of faith is made up of ragamuffins. I’m one of them. So are you. And that’s why we need to be gentle with one another. As Paul says, ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you’ (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). One translation says, ‘Blessed are those who know their need of God’. That’s what Abraham and Isaac can teach us. They did all kinds of things wrong—they made plenty of mistakes—but they knew without a shadow of doubt that they needed God. They could not exist without God. Without God, the people of Israel would have died out after one generation. And without God, the Church of Jesus Christ will die from the inside out, even if for a while it still looks like a prosperous institution.
Fortunately for us, we never need to be without God, because God has promised never to abandon us. Let me close with this wonderful promise from the book of Lamentations, written at a time when the city of Jerusalem had just been destroyed by its enemies, and many of its people taken away into exile. It certainly wasn’t a time of great hope, and yet the author of Lamentations isn’t ready to give up on God just yet. Here’s what he says:
‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:22-23).
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Old Testament reading is surely one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible. As a preacher I share that horror. I see from my sermon notes that the last time I preached on this text was 2002. I do remember, however, that I did plan to preach on it at least once since then, but chickened out at the last minute.
What on earth is this story about? Every now and again we hear about people who think God has instructed them to kill someone. We usually believe those people are unbalanced! But then we come to this story, which Jewish people call the ‘Akedah’, the ‘binding’, and we wonder—what’s going on? Would God really ask us to kill one of our children as a sacrifice to him—and judge the quality of our faith by whether or not we obey him?
So how are we supposed to deal with this passage?
Let’s recap the story so far, because the story’s important. Abraham and his wife Sarah were a childless couple in their mid-seventies. They came from the area of the middle east that is now part of Iraq, and presumably they were worshippers of the gods of their ancestors. But one day the one true God, creator of heaven and earth, spoke to Abraham and commanded him to leave his home and his family of origin, and go to a land God would show him. There God would make of him a great nation, and all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Obviously, if that was going to happen, this old couple would somehow need to have a child, and in later conversations with Abraham, God made that promise explicit.
But as we saw last week, Abraham and Sarah had to wait twenty-five years for that promise to be fulfilled. While they waited, their faith was not always strong. We’re told that on separate occasions, each of them laughed in disbelief. Can a child be born to a man in his nineties? Can wrinkled old Sarah actually bear a child and nurse it? And we remembered last week the story of how, mid-way through the twenty-five year waiting period, Sarah even suggested that Abraham sleep with her slave girl and bear a child by her, so that the child could be counted as Sarah’s and be Abraham’s heir. This was quite acceptable in the culture of the day, but it wasn’t God’s plan. It wasn’t walking by faith in God; it was trusting in human ideas and human ingenuity.
The long wait for the birth of Isaac wasn’t the only way Abraham failed to trust God. On two separate occasions, when he was forced by famine to go into strange countries, he lied about Sarah’s relationship with him, because he was afraid the people of the land would kill him to steal his wife. But this backfired seriously, and in both cases he actually put her safety at risk by his actions. Instead of trusting God to protect him, he trusted in his own plan of action.
Abraham is called a hero of faith in the Old Testament, and it’s true that sometimes his faith was spectacular: “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15.6). At other times, he clearly failed the test.
But at the end of the twenty-five year waiting period, Abraham’s faltering faith was spectacularly rewarded. In a truly miraculous event, Sarah bore a child in her nineties and named him Isaac: ‘he laughs’. I think of all the years of waiting, and how many times Abraham and Sarah had struggled to believe it. With every year that went by, the event became even more impossible. But now it had happened, and their faith in God was vindicated.
What had Abraham learned over these twenty-five years? He’d learned that when he tried to take matters into his own hands, he usually messed up. He’d learned that when he tried to figure things out, he didn’t usually get it right, because he couldn’t see the big picture, and God could. He’d learned that nothing was impossible with God.
Most of all, he’d learned that God was spectacularly committed to his promise to Abraham. God was looking forward to that great nation through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. God had told him several times that it was through Isaac that that nation would come into being, not Ishmael or any other child Abraham might bear. During that twenty-five year wait, Abraham sometimes had occasion to doubt God’s commitment to his own promise. But all that changed with the birth of Isaac. After that, Abraham would never doubt God’s purposes and God’s promises again.
And so we come to today’s story. We don’t know how old Isaac was when this tale took place. He was old enough to help his father carry the wood for the fire, and old enough to ask him questions about the absence of a lamb for the sacrifice. The text doesn’t specify his age; some commentators have speculated that he might be a teenager by now, but we can’t know for sure.
God’s command to Abraham dials up the emotional cost with its threefold repetition: “…your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (v.2). Let’s remember that at this point in the story Abraham, at his wife’s request, has sent his older son Ishmael away with his mother Hagar, ending any legal obligation to them. So yes—Isaac is his only son, who he loves.
Abraham obeys instantly. We’re never told anything about his emotional state; the author leaves us to puzzle it out for ourselves. He makes all the preparations, takes Isaac and a couple of servants, and makes a three day journey to the land of Moria. Many Jewish commentators believe that the place where the Akedah took place was actually the site on which the Jerusalem temple was built in later years, the place where all the sacrifices of Israel were offered.
There are a couple of little hints about how Abraham was seeing the situation as he made this journey.
On the third day, Abraham saw the place God had shown him. He turned to the servants and said, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you” (v.5). Not, “Iwill come back to you,” but “wewill come back to you.” Was he deceiving the servants? But why would he feel he needed to do that? As their master, why would he feel like he owed them an explanation? And why would the author of the story include this detail, if he didn’t think it was significant?
There’s also the hint of Abraham’s reply to Isaac’s question:
Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “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.” So the two of them walked on together.
Some have cynically seen this as Abraham lying to pacify his son, but I don’t read it that way. Personally, I find it hard to imagine Abraham doing such a thing. It would require him to mentally add, “and by the way, it’s you!”
So what am I saying about Abraham’s state of mind? Did he know that from the start that the test was a fake? If so, how was it a real test? These are very difficult questions to answer, and none of us can claim any certainty on the subject. But for what it’s worth, I’ll give my opinion.
The real lesson Abraham has been learning for over thirty years has been how to live by faith, by trust in God. Sometimes he’s been good at it, sometimes not so good. I would suggest that, at this late stage in his life, God is still testing his faith.
Here’s how it works. The birth of Isaac has convinced him that God is absolutely committed to his promise of a great nation who will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. And God has specifically told him that Isaac will be the ancestor of that nation. Not Ishmael or any other son of his, but Isaac. And Abraham has learned that God’s word is utterly reliable. If God makes a promise, you can depend on it.
But now comes this shocking command: “Go and behave like a pagan, Abraham! Offer Isaac to me as a burnt offering, just like the worshippers of pagan gods do!” We should note that at this point in the story God hasn’t specifically forbidden child sacrifice. Later on in the Old Testament he does forbid it, several times, and recoils from it in horror. But Abraham doesn’t know this, it’s still an open question to him.
So here’s Abraham’s dilemma. He knows Isaac will be the ancestor of the great nation, because God has told him that, many times. But now, God is telling him to kill Isaac. How can that be? Is God not committed to his own promise after all? That’s unthinkable to Abraham. If there’s one thing he’s sure about, it’s God’s commitment to his promise.
In the New Testament the letter to the Hebrews joins up the dots for us:
‘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.’ (Hebrews 11.17-19)
Of course, the writer to the Hebrews didn’t have access to Abraham’s mind and heart, any more than we do. He could only read the story as we read it, meditate on it, and draw his own conclusions. He comes to the conclusion that Abraham didn’t think for a moment that he was about to lose Isaac; God had told him many times that he was completely committed to Isaac. But Abraham didbelieve he needed to trust God and do what God said. Somehow, God was going to work this out so that Isaac would come out of it alive. Abraham didn’t know for sure how that would happen—although he made a guess when he said to Isaac, “God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.” But he did know he needed to do as he was told, and let God work things out for good for everyone concerned—as God had always done, in Abraham’s experience.
This is the way I understand the story. It’s still an uncomfortable story for me, and I know without a shadow of doubt that I would have failed this test. But then, I also know without a shadow of doubt that God would never ask me to take this test. That’s because since the time of Abraham he’s made it crystal clear that he doesn’t ask parents to offer their children in sacrifice to him. If a bug in my head tells me to do something God has clearly forbidden, it’s not God that’s wrong, it’s me!
So what’s in this story for us today, if the central drama no longer applies to us?
You sometimes hear about people who try to relive their own lives vicariously through their children. In other words, even if their own lives have been full of disappointment and frustration, they feel they can experience all the success and enjoyment they missed out on, through their children’s success and enjoyment. This is often unhealthy for those children, because their parents see the children’s future as belonging to them, not to the children themselves.
At the time of Abraham the Old Testament people had little sense of a future life after death. To them it was literally true that children wereyour future. For many years, from his point of view, Abraham had been without a future. Finally in his old age he had been given a future, and now he was being asked to trust God enough to let go of it, and embrace uncertainty, with nothing to go on but God and his promise.
In fact, Abraham had been called to sacrifice both his past andhis future. Many years before, at the age of seventy five, he had been called by God to leave his home in Haran and go to a country God would show him—the land of Canaan. In other words, he had cut off all ties with his past—ties with his own culture, his sense of identity, his ancestral family and so on. Now God was asking him to be willing to do the same with his future as well. At the end of the day, he was asked to entrust everything to God. The most important truth about him would not be that he grew up in the prosperous cities of Ur and Haran, or that he was the son of Terah, or even that he was going to be the ancestor of a great nation. Rather, the most important truth about him would be that he was God’s friend. God was asking him to be content with that, and nothing else.
This passage is challenging us. Where do we find our identity and significance? Is it in our Canadian citizenship, our family of origin, our circle of friends? Paul talks about how all of this is worthless to him when compared to the gain of knowing Christ. He mentions his Jewish heritage, his circumcision, his membership in the tribe of Benjamin, his faith as a Pharisee and so on. He says, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).
To me, this is the most important lesson of this passage. Despite all our difficulties and struggles with some aspects of it, here we have the story of a man of faith who was content to leave his past behind, to cut himself off from all tangible hope of a future if that was God’s will, and simply trust all he had to God. All the rest was stripped away from him. All he had left was the fact that he was God’s friend. But that was enough. He knew that, being God’s friend, God would not abandon him. God would not abandon his promises to him. And so in faith, he put his future in the hands of God, and waited to see how God would work it out.
I’m convinced that this is the way of peace. And while I don’t pray that any of us would ever have to go through so terrifying a test as Abraham, I do pray that we would learn the lesson he learned: the ability to put our trust in the goodness and faithfulness of God, even when outward circumstances seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. For God to teach us that lesson would surely be an incredible blessing. Are we ready to ask him to do that?
Every morning I make myself a cup of coffee, go into my tiny home office and shut the door, and have my morning quiet time of Bible reading and prayer. Later, I use the same space to lead live streamed Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook.
Some days, as an alternative, I like to go for an early morning prayer walk. I find I quite enjoy praying out of doors. I didn’t always connect well with God in nature, but I do now.
Back in 1990 I made a mission trip to the isolated Inuit community of Umingmaktok, where I stayed for a week in a one room house shared with five other people. Very little space for privacy. Funnily enough, though, I found the people instinctively understood the need for private space. If I sat down in the corner to read my Bible and pray silently, people respected that and left me alone til I was done.
C.S. Lewis once remarked that he enjoyed saying his prayers in railway carriages (in those days British railway carriages were divided into small compartments with seating for perhaps six to eight people). He said they provided exactly the right balance of privacy and distraction. He also talked about kneeling down beside his bed to pray (which was a common practice in years gone by, morning and/or evening—the Queen is even seen doing it in the TV series ‘The Crown’). I used to do this when I was a student.
I know people who write their prayers as letters to God, using a journal. I’ve done this myself from time to time. One advantage I find is that it’s an easily transportable form of prayer; for instance, it’s quite enjoyable to do it in a coffee shop, which again provides Lewis’ ‘right balance of privacy and distraction’.
I know people who work in offices who purposely go to work a little early so they can spend the first few minutes of the day at their desk in prayer.
My wife and I frequently pray together while we sit up in bed. We usually have cups of tea at hand; we read a passage of scripture and a devotional commentary, then we each pray extemporaneously, closing our prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer.
There’s a venerable Christian tradition of family prayer around the meal table. The 1959 Canadian Book of Common Prayer actually provides two short forms of prayer for use in families, one in the morning and one in the evening. They are designed to follow the reading of a passage of scripture, and to be led (somewhat quaintly) by ‘the head of the house’.
What do all these ways of praying have in common? Answer: they don’t require the use of a church building.
Currently, some Anglicans in various parts of the world seem to be be putting a lot of emphasis on the importance of having church buildings open in a time of continuing coronavirus pandemic, so that people can go into them during the day for private prayer.
I would like to submit that if we have schooled our people to see access to church buildings as essential to private prayer, we should be sued for spiritual malpractice. Most New Testament Christians had no such access, and their prayer lives appear to have been very healthy.
Rather, we should see it as of first importance to teach people to take prayer into the normal locations of their daily lives. That is where God is to be found. Time will hallow those locations just as it has hallowed stone sanctuaries. This is entirely a function of the way habits wear themselves into our brains. And once formed, those habits will serve us well in the cultivation of a sense of the presence of God in the midst of ordinary life.
One final thought. What did Jesus teach his disciples about avoiding ostentation in prayer? “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6.6 NRSV).
‘Into your room.’ Of course, Jesus was well aware that many poor people in Galilee didn’t have their own ‘rooms’; his point was not about location but about attitude—praying out of love for God, not out of a desire to be admired for one’s spirituality. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that he assumed that the natural and common location of private prayer would be the home.
May it be so for us too.