By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 25, 2023
Genesis 21:8–21 (ESV)
8 And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
This week we reflected again on one of the queries within our faith and practice. You might ask what are these queries and why do we read them? I asked this for many years. Then as I began to study the life of prayer and began to deepen my understanding and relationship with God, I found these questions to be beneficial. Are they the Quaker ten commandments? No, but like the ten commandments or ten words as it might be more accurately translated from Hebrew, these queries provide wise guidance to the active participation I the life of Christ.
Today’s query we might find a bit judgmental. Why do we care about the consumption of alcohol or the use of drugs? Are we just being legalistic? On the surface it might look that way. But I hope we look deeper. If you were to do a study on the evolution of Friends beliefs you would find that this was not part of our original faith and practice, in fact in George Fox’s letters he encouraged various meetings to have spirits available at the meetinghouses. It seems a bit odd today for a religious society to offer alcoholic beverages at worship outside of the sacramental wine of the Eucharist. But as with everything context is key.
The abstinence of the use of alcoholic drinks among Friends has a unique history. It emerged before the advent of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, but we did encourage the development of this organization. Our testimony of limited use of alcohol emerged from our testimony against slavery. Even before the Revolutionary War Quakers were actively attempting to stop this barbaric practice, because in our opinion it went against everything we believed. When scripture tells us that we are all equal in the eyes of God, we believe that. And even though even Quakers participated in this dehumanizing practice, we worked to abolish it.
One of the methods Friends used to testify against slavery, was the practice of boycotts. Early Friends would look at the products that used forced labor, and they would stop buying those products or would buy only producers that could confirm production practices that complied with their values. You might notice fair trade certifications on labels today, this certification was started by Quakers, for the same reason used in our history. Yes, even today there is slavery in our world. Thankfully it is not the same as it was during the history of the United States. But there are millions of people around the globe that are living in bondage and under exploited labor conditions. I am not a conspiracy theorist, I just know that there are companies that exploit the disadvantaged for gain especially in the agricultural and textile markets. Friends began their boycott of the use of alcohol because many of the resources used in the production of these beverages were obtained from exploited human labor, mainly sugar derived from the plantations of the Caribbean.
As you might notice, none of this history is found in our query today. Instead, it speaks of health and social aspects of the use of intoxicating substances, and it goes beyond alcohol. This shows the evolution of traditions of faith. We started in one place and as time progressed, we began to see additional benefits. Friends began their abstinence movement as a testimony against slavery but once slavery was abolished, they began to see that other forms of bondage were attached to these substances. So, they continued to advocate for abstinence.
The query is a question for you to answer in your life and among those closest to you. It is not a law, but a question to examine if your words and actions are harmonized. At the core of the query is something profound. A concept that stretched back to the very dawn of human existence and remains to this day. It is a concept with which all people struggle, we see it in our children and among nations. This query speaks to the inner conflict of our own desires in relation to those around us.
The scripture accompanying today’s query is from Galatians 5, and in this it says that the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. Notice here that Paul did not complete the list. He ended that list with, “and things like these.” Meaning that there is room for us to actively participate in the completion of the list. I do not want us to jump right into that exercise because there is more work that we must do before we can engage in such a practice. We must first understand what works of the flesh means, because the list that comes after that are evidence of or examples of whatever the work or desire of the flesh is.
The concept of flesh in the Greek language revolves around the body. It is the meat within the skin. The stoics would often teach that skin dries but the meat within rots. These Greek philosophers would say then that anything of the body is corrupt and can rot. Our culture often tells us that Christianity is a religion that forces us to deny bodily pleasure but even the Greeks taught this sort of thing. The interesting thing is that the followers of the Hebrew God differentiated things a bit differently.
The flesh in this case still revolves around the body, but instead of saying all bodily desires are base, they instead insist on controlling our desires for a greater wholistic good. The faith of the Hebrew people was community oriented. Anything that denies the community is considered taboo. It is selfish desire or the desires of one faction within a community over others that those within the tribes of Israel advise against.
This might be a way of looking at the law that is foreign to you and believe me it has been difficult for me to accept as well. Our religious culture is built on our personal relationship with God through our decision to follow Jesus. Where does our community come into play? Community has always been a part of our faith. When Jesus was questioned about the greatest commandment, He affirmed that all the law and the teachings of the prophets’ hinge on one thing: Love God with everything you are and have and love your neighbor as yourself. In that one nugget of wisdom from the very mouth of God Incarnate we are told that how we interact and live within our community is just as important as how we live before God.
It is this community aspect that I want us to focus on today. In Genesis 21 we are told of the disfunction within Abraham’s household. Last week three visitors came to Abraham’s tent, and he threw a party fit for a king. One of those visitors was revealed to be the Angel of the Lord. When we see this phrase, it is important. Angel in Hebrew is something that is difficult to translate into English because the term is Elohim. This word most of us would understand as being a name for God, but it is used for all spiritual beings including God and angels. But when we see the Angel of the Lord it carries a greater meaning, those that see this particular spiritual being equate it to the Most High God, Yahweh. From our Christian perspective we believe this to be a pre-incarnational manifestation of Jesus.
At this meeting, God told Abraham and the eavesdropping Sarah that in a year they would have the son that God had promised to them. They were old at this time. Abraham was around one hundred years old, and Sarah is thought to be around the spry age of ninety. This young couple were finally going to see the fulfillment of God’s promise. Unfortunately, there is a problem, Abraham already has a son through Sarah’s slave Hagar. This sounds odd to us today but was culturally acceptable in much of the ancient world. In fact, it was much more acceptable than we might like to admit even in more recent history.
The reason it was acceptable was not because of misogyny as we might think, although that happened, but it was acceptable because it was important to have an heir. There needed to be someone to whom all the wealth and property would be passed down to. In our minds when we think of Abraham and Sarah, we often see them as a family today. We see a husband and wife because that is where a family begins. In an ancient nomadic culture like Abraham’s the family had a different definition. It included servants, both free and slaves, and extended family. The father was the oldest male within the group and the oldest son would take on that role once the father died. If there was not an heir, the entire community would fall apart because there was no father giving oversight. The laws against adultery were important in this regard. Today we interpret it as not having relations outside of marriage. But in ancient times it only applied to the women, because the community needed the assurance of who the rightful heir was. Yes, patriarchy is real, and yes it can be a form of bondage to some. I am not defending the practice, just saying that it exists. When the wife of the patriarch was not able to bear a child, it was socially acceptable for the patriarch to produce an heir with a servant.
Before we through the bible out I want us to remember that Abraham did not do this for a long time. His wife urged him to do this. Abraham sought a different way, instead of using a servant he wanted to legally adopt his most loyal servant. But legal adoption was not really a thing in a nomadic tribe, just naming an heir does not keep the tribe together. Sarah urged Abraham to produce offspring through a hand-picked servant, her personal servant Hagar. And it worked, Abraham had a son in his mid to late eighties and named him Ishmael.
Now fourteen years later, Abraham has another son named Isaac and more disfunction enters the family. Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. Remember the feast that he threw for three random visitors, and that would give you an idea of what is going on at this event. Everyone is celebrating for a good reason, there is finally an heir in the family. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, laughing. Sarah then demanded that this woman and her son be cast out, “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
This term that is translated as laughing in the English Standard version has been translated a couple of different ways over the years. In the New Revised Standard version, they translate it as playing. Where the New International, The NET bible, and the King James Version all translate it as mocking. Each are accurate translations, but which ever one we use causes us to create a different image in our mind. I think the key is what Sarah says after the laughing, “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
I do not think mocking, or making fun of is what is going on in this scene. I believe that Ishmael was enjoying the feast his father was throwing, this teenage boy was excited and joyful with everyone in the community. I think Sarah was jealous and resentful. Shortly after she had urged Abraham to bear a child with Hagar, she became jealous of the servant and began to treat her harshly. Hagar was treated so poorly by Sarah that she ran away into the wilderness, but God visited Hagar and urged her to return. Sarah was jealous, she saw that Abraham and Ishmael were together celebrating the weaning of Isaac, and the laughter of Ishmael set her off. “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
“The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Sarah was jealous for her son. She saw a potential rivalry, and divisions. She might have even been a bit envious. She bore these emotions because Ishmael was a teenage boy. Ishmael had spent the last fourteen years with his father Abraham who is now one hundred years old. She was very aware of her husband’s age and what if he died before Isaac became a man? The nomadic life is hard on the body, so it was very possible that Abraham would die before Isaac became old enough to fully inherit the property of his father. Until that time Ishmael would be seen as Isaac’s equal. And Sarah could not bear the thought of the son of this slave woman being an heir with her son.
Sarah had prejudices. Yet we look at her as being one of the holiest women of faith. She is human as are we. Abraham fathered a child with a woman that was not his wife, today we would call that adultery, and yet we regard him as one of the most faithful people to ever live on earth, and the father of our own faith. He is human as are we. None of us are perfect. We can all fall into moments where the works of the flesh are more evident in our lives than the fruit of the Spirit.
Sarah’s actions that day displeased Abraham. And God spoke to Abraham in this distress saying, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”
This troubles me. Is God honoring Sarah’s behavior? Is God telling Abraham that Sarah is right? No. God is acknowledging that we are human. We are often thick and resentful. We are prone to anger and grudges. God knows that Sarah and Hagar are not best of friends and probably never will be. And sometimes for the good of the community we must do things that are not easy.
Abraham was also very aware of his age. He knew that it was likely that he would die before Isaac would be of age to inherit the property of the family. He was aware that Isaac may need his big brother to help him along the way. This is why Abraham was displeased. If he was going to listen to his wife who would help Isaac? God gave Abraham peace. He said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” God is telling Abraham that he will be around long enough for Isaac to grow into his role as head of the family. And God also told him, “I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” God is promising Abraham that he would provide.
What does all of this have to do with today’s query? I wish I knew.
Why did Friends first start to abstain from alcohol? Why do people consume alcoholic beverages? Why do they use drugs? Why do we as humans challenge laws and rules? Why do we do much of what we do? We can look at this query from a legalistic perspective and conclude that good people don’t drink smoke or chew or hang with those that do. But that does not really prevent me from wanting to participate in those activities. I still have the desires in my flesh because I am human, and Benjamin Franklin said, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.” The point of the query is to be mindful of our actions and consider how they will affect those around us. Do you intelligently and lovingly use your influence to limit the use of any substance and seek to minister to those already damaged by such use?
This query goes beyond having a drink with friends, it speaks to how we live our lives with others. Will we use our positions and our influence to contribute to the works of the flesh or the fruit of the Spirit?
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 18, 2023
Genesis 18:1–15 (ESV)
1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”
If I were to give rankings on my favorite books of scripture, Genesis would be near the top. I love the stories within this book. I mention them often in the messages I give. If you were to look back over my sermons, you would probably find some mention of our first parents in the vast majority. I speak often about these stories, because they are packed full of meaning.
I say this not because I think we need to read the book of Genesis as a historical/scientific book, but as a theological book of ethical origins. Some argue that we must believe in a literal 6-day creation to have authentic faith, I do not believe that this is necessary. I say this because none of us were present during the days of creation, and if we are to literally believe the stories, no human was there until day six. A day can mean anything from a literal twenty-four-hour period to an era of history. When I read Genesis, I allow it to be whatever it needs to be, and for me it speaks of origins. It speaks of the Hebrew peoples’ understanding of where we came from and how we got here. How we got here, not just the origin of matter, but also our present condition.
A couple of years ago at the retreat our Meeting has at Camp Quaker Haven, I spoke about our stories. We each have a story. We have personal stories, and these personal stories are connected to a deeper family story. These family stories are connected to national and cultural stories. If we wanted to, we could track our story all the way back to some epic beginning worthy of a blockbuster movie. And yet most of us would probably say that there is nothing special about your story. I beg to differ. In the movie “A Wrinkle in Time” based on the book of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, Mrs. Which says to Meg, “Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are.” Meg answered, “I guess I never really thought that.” To which Mrs. Which responds, “Maybe now is the time to start thinking about it.”
We each have a story, and a couple of years ago at that retreat I encouraged us to think about that story. Some of us may know the deeper history of our ethnic story, while others may not. For most Americans, our heritage is so blended we really cannot speak to that story. Our stories take a different form, maybe our religious cultural identity. We are all here in this Meeting for Worship, so we have a common spiritual heritage. A heritage that connects us across national and ethnic lines across generations to the very beginning of time as we know it. Genesis is our origin story.
“Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are?” Genesis speaks to this. It gives us an answer to where suffering comes from. It provides a story to explain why we, when presented with choices, so often choose poorly. And it gives us something to hope for. After God created the universe and everything within it, he took man, male and female, and place them in the Garden. The garden is an ancient Near-East expression of a place divine entities would live. It is a place with an endless supply of water and food in abundance. The garden is heaven. It is the place God dwells. And God wanted us to dwell with Him. The Hebrew people did not dwell in a garden, far from it. Some of us within this meeting have had the privilege to have visited Israel, the land from which these stories originated. There are places within that land that are fertile, but much of that region is arid desert. People in the desert long for the oasis where water is abundant, as people from the north long for a place where the days are warm. How did we end up in this desert or land of suffering? Our first parents made a choice.
Our first parents could have lived forever in the presence of their creator, but they made a choice that took them down a different path. We often label this the original sin. This is not necessarily wrong. I think the point of the story is that we are often given choices and crossroads in life. We are given an option of good and evil. In a moment we must make a choice. We can weigh the options, even justify them in our mind, but at times the choices we make have consequences we do not fully understand.
Eve looked at the fruit, and the hope that it would give knowledge was intriguing. She did not consider what the full consequences were, I could have knowledge equal to God. We could be equal to God. She was considering herself and her husband, but she did not consider the balance of all creation around her. And she ate and gave some to Adam. They ate and their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked and vulnerable.
This origin story speaks volumes, but the vulnerability I think is key. There is fear in vulnerability. There is selfish concern and lack of trust. We must find something to protect us and we must hide, because if we do not our very existence is threatened.
Genesis continues and so does this fear and vulnerability. It gets to the point where God looks out at his creation and finds that the entire human race is corrupt and evil. We are not fully told what this means in scripture. Instead, we are given this weird statement about the Nephilim were on the earth and the sons of God finding the daughters of men attractive and they take them as wives and giving birth to mighty men of renown. In the Book of Enoch, if you have not heard of Enoch, it is an ancient Jewish apocryphal book, but in this book, we are told that the sons of God are spiritual beings that gave humanity secret forbidden knowledge. Knowledge of war, magic, and adornment. The humans desired this knowledge because it gave them power over others, and they felt less vulnerable, but it had consequences. God flooded the earth to preserve creation.
If we were to consider the story, we could make a case that humanity’s quest for technological advancement threatened the ecology of the world. It is almost as if there has been a constant struggle between humankind and the environment since the dawn of civilization. But the story continues to the tower of Babel, in this story the people wanted to make a name for themselves and build a tower to the heavens so that they could be like the gods. Again, God had to intervein for our own protection. He confused the languages and divided the nations among the sons of God, but God chose one people as his inheritance, Israel.
This is where our story today emerges. Prior to this humanity has cycled through life with God and corruption so vile we threatened the continuation of life, to the point God had to reset the course of history. But God continues to want a relationship with humanity. He called one man, Abraham to be the one through whom He would reveal himself to the nations. One man. Not a tribe, not a nation, but one family.
This goes back to that quote from Mrs. Which. All of history from the beginning of the universe to now. It all builds on one choice in a moment. God called Abraham and he set off to go to a land that God would show him. One man and one woman would become the parents of a great nation, and the light to many nations. Yet, the people God chose could not have children.
Abraham and his wife, Sarah, wandered around this arid region for years. They believed in a promise, yet they had nothing to show for it up to this point. They wandered. He was by ancient standards a wealthy man. He had flocks and servants, but he did not have an heir. He traveled and lived believing that the God that called him would eventually fulfill what he had promised. And one day he sat at the door of his tent resting and something amazing occurred.
“He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.” This does not really sound all that amazing. Yet for Abraham it seemingly changed the course of history. Abraham looked at these men, we are not told how they ended up in front of him or how long Abraham observed them. Maybe they just appeared out of nowhere, or maybe Abraham watched them approach for several miles. All we know is his reaction to their coming. He saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”
I do not want to move too quickly from this because it is important. Abraham ran to meet the travelers. Abraham is not a young man; we are told that he is a hundred years old. I do not know about you but at that age I do not think I would run anywhere. And in his culture, it was not dignified to run. Abraham saw the individual in the distance and he knew deep within him that this was important, so he ran. There was an urgency welling within him that he could not let these men just pass by without entertaining them and allowing them to rest. He ran to greet them; he ran to invite them to his tent. He ran.
When he greeted them, he said, “O Lord.” We might be tempted to think that he was just being generous, but the term used is adonani. This is a title used for individuals of great status. Abraham greeted these travelers as if they were royalty. He greeted them in this way even before they spoke and offered them refreshment.
In many ancient cultures of this area hospitality was important and continues to be important even today. Abraham offered them water, he offered to wash their feet, and to allow them to rest in his own tent while he brought some bread. He offered them a meal but what he prepared was something beyond our understanding.
As they take their seats, Abraham goes to Sarah his wife and urges her to quickly prepare the bread. “Quick!” He says, “Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and make cakes.” This is about a half a bushel of flour. We probably do not get an idea of what this really means. One bushel of wheat makes approximately ninety loaves of bread. He is telling his wife to quickly make the equivalent of thirty-six loaves of bread, twelve loaves for each of their guests.
He then, “ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly.” A tender and good calf means that this was fat calf. One that was being set aside as the next one for slaughter. The average size of a fattened calf today would yield approximately four hundred twenty-eight pounds of meat. Which would be enough meat to feed eight hundred fifty-six people. Abraham is preparing a feast.
I want us to really get a grasp of what he is offering these three individuals. Today the hanging carcass of beef is worth approximately $4.90 per pound, so this animal would be worth around $2097. The average cost of a loaf of bread is $2.50, so thirty-six loaves would cost around $90, bringing the total to around $2187.
But this is not all that Abraham gathers. After he gets the beef cooking, he gathers curds and milk. We do not know exactly what the curds would be, it might be cheese or yogurt. Since this is an arid climate and milk is difficult to store, I would assume it would be something like cheese curds today, which you can get for $7.99 a pound from amazon. Now if we were to consider the same rate of generosity as the bread with this. The serving size of cheese curds is around two ounces, and a serving size of bread is one slice or one ounce. There are sixteen servings of bread in one loaf, so Abraham has 576 servings of bread being prepared. This would be seventy-two pounds of cheese with a value of around $576. Bringing the total cost of the meal to around $2762. But he also served milk. Milk cost $4.99 per gallon according to my quick google search, I have been driving to and from church camp and have not looked at the price at the store. There are sixteen servings of milk per gallon so continuing the rate at which he is preparing this feast he would require thirty-six gallons of milk valued at $180. This brings the total value of this feast for three guests to just under $3000.
I want us to just stop and think about this. Abraham saw three individuals in the distance, and this was his first thought. He ran to them and invited them to recline in his tent and he immediately prepared a $3000 feast at a moment’s notice. This one meal is around one month’s wage for me. It is more like a wedding feast than a simple meal.
Abraham had enthusiastic hospitality.
I thought about this as I was driving to camp this week. I wondered if this is how I lived. No, I do not blow through a month’s wages on one meal at the spur of a moment, but what does this mean?
If we go back to the origin story. Adam was vulnerable and he hid. The world was vulnerable so they sought forbidden knowledge that gave them power so that they could feel safe. The people wanted to make a name for themselves, and they built a tower. In each case choices were made, paths were taken, decisions were made. Each time the decisions that were made were based on one thing, me. My knowledge, my power, my name. This self-serving origin story is one that is of the world. It is the story that God dispersed to nations, the nations that God turned away from for one man that he called his own.
This one-man trusted God. He trusted him enough to leave everything he had ever known for the hope of something better. This one man was given the hope of becoming the light to the nations, the restoration of all that was lost. This one man lived a long life, and he had not seen the fulfillment of the promise. And yet he still hoped. Then at one hundred years old, still waiting for this promised child that would give rise to the nation, he remained hopeful. He could have become bitter and angry. He could have fallen into self-pity, but he did not. After years of disappointment when he saw three travelers in the distance, he ran to great them and threw a party fit for a king or God himself.
Abraham focused on others, while the nations of the world focused on self. In the verses following what we read today we would see a different reception to these travelers. They go to a place called Sodom. We hear a great deal about this place in the church today. But I want us to consider them in contrast to Abraham. One of the men that was traveling that day is what we know as a theophany. A pre incarnational manifestation of Jesus, or what the Old Testament would call the Angel of the Lord. The other two were servants of God, or what we would call Angels. In Hebrew scripture all spiritual beings are call Elohim or gods, but there is only one God most high, Yahweh. All these other Elohim are lessor or created beings of various status and allegiance. In the story of Noah some of these beings might have been the sons of God that were spoken of, the ones that gave forbidden knowledge in the story of Enoch. Sodom looked upon these beings as something that could give them power or status.
Abraham enthusiastically provided hospitality and served the guests, while Sodom saw them as beings that could fulfill their own desires. Abraham was selfless where Sodom was selfish. Abraham willingly gave a feast worth a month’s wages while Sodom raped, destroyed and devoured.
““Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are?” We all have a story to tell. A story filled with adventure and life altering choices. Stories filled with peril and heroism, of glory and defeat. What is your story? Is it a story of enthusiastic hospitality or grave selfishness? Is it filled with hope or despair?
Meg told Mrs. Which, “I guess I never really thought that.” To which Mrs. Which responds, “Maybe now is the time to start thinking about it.”
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By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
June 11, 2023
Hosea 5:15–6:6 (ESV)
15 I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. 1 “Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. 3 Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” 4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. 5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
What is our purpose? Why are we here?
I have asked these questions several times throughout my journey of faith. I ask them primarily because the emotions I feel do not always reflect the reality of my experiences. Why am I standing before you? One might say that I stand here because you have hired me to do so. This is not completely wrong, but I am not a mere hireling pastor. Although much of my remaining in Kansas City depends on my wages, what I say is not reflective of this relationship. I will speak what I feel I am supposed to speak, even if it may cause discomfort. Discomfort is not my intention, my goal is to provide hope, to inspire, and to encourage us all to a place where we can love and honor God, and that of God in those around us.
What is our purpose? Why are we here? Last week I went to church camp with several of our students. I quickly realized that attending camp as a counselor is vastly different than going as a student. Instead of asking questions, I was the one that people looked toward to answer the questions. This is not a problem for me, but the questions that I was asked might surprise you.
When I was a student, we asked questions too, but the questions this emerging generation ask are different. The questions my generation asked mainly revolved around what a sin is and how can we alleviate that so that we can get into heaven. This line of questioning primarily focuses on duty or justification of action. For several generations this has been the line of questions that were asked. This reflects the attitude and the discipleship of those generations. For several generations to be a disciple of Christ required that we follow rules and if we do not deviate from those rules we are justified in our actions.
This has served us well for the past few generations. We were satisfied with the clear-cut black and white answers that our leaders could give. But the world around us has changed. We no longer live in a world where there are only two options. Before there was capitalism and communism. There was right and wrong. There was good and evil. The places we could find answers to our questions were within our schools, our churches and our libraries. The limited access to knowledge often made life easier, and this is how our theology was often constructed. There is a right way of thinking and a wrong way. Our opinion is right and everyone else is wrong.
Then all at once the digital age hit. When I was a student in high school I remember searching through the library for information. I would spend hours looking through books and microfiche slides to find articles to cite in research papers. Then I went to college and what once took hours, could be accomplished in a matter of minutes by typing words into an internet search engine. The answers to the questions we asked suddenly expanded. Not only could we read articles from our local community or university, but we could access things written across the globe.
We often do not realize how this digital environment changes the questions we ask. We do not realize how access to different worldviews can prompt us to think deeper about things that at one point seemed common. My generation asked questions about how we should act, but this emerging generation at the age of ten are asking questions that I did not wrestle with until I was in graduate school.
Why are we here? What is our purpose? The Prophet Hosea, I believe, probably asked similar questions. We do not know much about this prophet, but what we do know makes him unique. He was a prophet that lived and ministered in the northern kingdom. Most other prophets were born in the southern kingdom of Judea and would make missionary trips to Israel to tell them how terrible they were, but Hosea was a native. Most of us remember Hosea, not because he was the lone prophet of Israel, but because of his marriage. We are told that God commanded Hosea to marry a woman of questionable morality by the name of Gomer. I will be honest the only reason I remembered her name is because it is Gomer. Scholars have long argued about the legitimacy of this. Many believe that Gomer’s adultery was figurative or allegorical, whereas others believe it to be literal. In my opinion I think it is both.
I say this because Israel was a pluralistic society. They had multiple religions and multiple world views. Prior to Hosea’s emergence to the office of prophet Israel had experienced an economic renewal, which gave them the arrogance to start a war against their southern neighbor. This war and subsequent defeat lead to a massive economic decline and eventual collapse. Their nation ceased, the people were absorbed into the Assyrian empire and the ten northern tribes of Israel have been lost.
The Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, embraced a pluralistic society. They followed the kingdoms of the world, and they were eventually absorbed into the kingdoms of men. We often take this as a warning. It is not wrong to believe that, but could it be teaching us more. Could we find hope in their rise and fall?
What is our purpose? Why are we here? In many ways these were the questions I was asked many times over the past week. What is the point of faith? As I sat and considered this week’s passage, I pondered Hosea’s story. I sat and I wondered why God would encourage him to marry a woman whose beliefs were so contrary to God’s commandments. It bothered me. How could a good God, a righteous God, a God that is concerned with sin encourage his own prophet to participate in that sort of lifestyle? Is this just allegory as some scholars say or did Hosea marry an adulterous wife? I think this prophet can speak volumes to our own pluralistic society.
The theme of the camp that I was participating in was Creator’s place. We learned a great deal about our created purpose and what we were created to do. I along with the camp directors encouraged the kids to seek and find their own purpose in this world. But there was one question that hit me in the gut, hard. “Why does God want to scare us to believe?”
This hit me hard because that has been the primary mode of evangelism and mission over the past generations. I learned the four spiritual laws by heart before I traveled to Ukraine for a summer of teaching. I learned how to bring nearly every conversation back to a presentation of these four laws and each of us learned to draw them own paper napkins. That is one reason usually have a pen handy because I was trained for this sort of thing. In my mind evangelism is to encourage people to repent and be saved and they are getting saved from the fires of hell.
I participated in these activities. I believe that they were good, but I came to a place where even I found them to be distasteful. Why do we speak so much about hell? Why do we use hell as a means of presenting the Gospel? You might argue that Jesus spoke about hell, our God told us about hell and that makes it alright. This is true but there is something that I have found interesting about Jesus’s discussion about hell, he only spoke about it to the religious elites. When he spoke to those that were regarded as sinners or unclean, Jesus did not speak of hell but hope.
I was taken aback by this question, because it is one that I have struggled with. You might have noticed that I rarely speak about hell. In the past people have even accused me of rejecting the truth of the gospel because I do not preach about hell. When people have made those accusations, I usually say that I do not speak about hell because heaven is better. We all know we are going to hell; we all live in hell every day of our lives. We do not need to be reminded of this, instead we need to be given hope. There is a different life and lifestyle available.
Hosea, for some reason believe that God directed him to marry an adulterous woman. We do not fully know what this means, it could mean that she sold her body, but it could also mean that was involved with ceremonial practices of religions foreign to Israel. I do not want us to jump to any conclusions, instead I want us to consider the point to the union. Through this relationship Hosea was able to teach us. What is adultery? We often look at this from a moralistic stance. It is a cheating spouse or an intimate relationship outside of marriage, or lust. We usually think of this sin as something we do with our bodies, but Jesus teaches us that we can participate in this activity without physical contact. Adultery is unfaithfulness. It is a breach of trust. It is when we place our own desires or self before the united union.
Scripture often speaks out against self-centered ideology. When Jesus is asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” The question is not really speaking of what is most important, but what is the least amount of effort I must exert to pacify God enough so I can continue to live as I want. Jesus answers this question by quoting Torah, “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And the second is like the first, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What must we do? We often ask questions like this. This is often at the very core of what is often described as the culture war. And we look at the words of the prophets to justify our stances, but what if Hosea was commanded to take a wife with a different worldview so that he could teach us all how to live this law within a pluralistic society? What if God is less concerned with our score card and more concerned with our attitude?
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
This last verse of today’s passage is one I often contemplate. It speaks of reality and ritual. It speaks of legality and relationships. It speaks to our condition today.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ or a Friend of God? So often we approach faith as a checklist, or the right answers but that is not at all what Hosea is speaking about. It is easy for us to get trapped in this way of thinking. We often speak of our faith traditions in terms of the dos and don’ts. And we often get into this trap because we look at scripture from western eyes and cultural understanding. We often think of commandments as legislation and rules. This is not the culture of Israel.
Would it surprise you to know that when speaking of the ten commandments, Israel would look at this in a different way than we do? They do not see rules but words of wisdom. I often heard sermons saying God gave us ten commandments not ten suggestions. As I have gained more understanding, I have come to realize that this is not exactly right, God gave us ten teachings. Ten discussions or queries. The commandments are not law, but an invitation to a conversation. This is what Hosea is speaking about in this last verse of today’s passage. God wants a relationship, a conversation with him, not ridged adherence to rules.
Why are we here? What is our purpose? We live in a world that has changed and is constantly changing. We once had all the answers, but now we have more questions. We as the church must adapt. I am not saying that we need to become universalist. I am saying that we need to listen and discuss. We need to figure out how to authentically live our faith in a pluralistic society. We often wonder why people turn from the church, and we try to hold on ever more tightly to ever more ridged interpretations of legalities. But in our attempt are we asking the right questions? What exactly is God’s desire of us?
Hosea most likely wrote these words shortly after Israel’s defeat in their war against Judah. He most likely wrote these words as the world they once knew was coming crashing down around them. He most likely wrote these words when people were honestly seeking answers, but those that were in positions to answer were unwilling to engage in conversation. Those that stood on the threshold between God and mankind were not bearing the name of God but were instead focused on ritual and duty. They looked at those that asked questions and instead of having compassion they gave them an empty ceremony.
And we wonder why people turn. Why do people reject God? Why did Hosea marry the harlot? Because that is what happens when we fail to engage in real conversations. This is a cycle that has been going on since the dawn of human civilization. We see the cycles even within the names listed in the genealogy of Christ. We move to and from God. It is found in the history of God’s people, in Israel and in the church. Our own tradition of faith, the Friends, emerged out of this very same place. George Fox yearned for God, yet when he spoke to those, he believed to be religious leaders they gave him cliché instead of hope. Getting married, self-medicating, singing psalms, get off my grass were the answers he received. So, what did he do? He took his book of scriptures out to a field, and he sat alone and, in the silence, according to his journal, he heard a voice say, “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thine condition.”
What is our purpose? Why are we here? The answers to these questions are all around us. They are sitting next to you and across the room. The answers are in the grass blowing in the wind, and in the dandelion bouquet a child brings to their mother. The answers are on the pages of scripture and on the faces of clerks that scan your groceries. We are here to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are here to love and encourage. Our purpose is to show a better lifestyle in how we interact with others. We are not here to be right or to have every answer, but we are here to live in a joyful relationship with all of creation.
God desires, he wants us to know and to be known. Yet our desires often become more important. God wants us to trust and to believe, yet often our wants supersede what God desires. We seek our own face instead of that of God. And as we seek, we miss the point. We want hope but where are we looking?
I want to close this message with the lyrics from a song called “Hymn for the 81%”
I grew up in your churches, Sunday morning and evening service, knelt in tears at the foot of the rugged cross. You taught me every life is sacred, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, I learned from you the highest law is Love. And I believed you when you said that I should trust the words in red to guide my steps through a wicked world. I assumed you’d do the same so imagine my dismay when I watched you led the sheep to the wolves.
You said love the lost, so I’m loving you now. You said to speak the truth, I’m calling you out. Why don’t you live the words that you put in my mouth. May love overcome and justice roll down.
Why are you here? What is your purpose? It is to love God with everything you have and all that you are, and to love that of God in everyone around you. Anything other than that is denial and rejection. Let us enter the ten conversations and ask God to show us the life he is calling us to. And let us know the one who made us and gave us life.
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