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Standing at the Gate

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

July 23, 2023

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Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

Genesis 28:10–19 (ESV)

10 Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! 13 And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. 14 Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” 18 So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

I have spent a great deal of time repeating the stories of Abraham and Isaac as we have walked through the book of Genesis. I love this book. If you were to ask me which books of the Bible would be my favorite, Genesis would be near the top. The first is most likely the writings of John, and then Genesis. Occasionally I might through Ecclesiastes in, along with which ever book I am currently studying. But Genesis will always be near the top.

I love the stories in Genesis, not because I read them as the history of our physical origin, although that is there. Instead, this book speaks of how God came to us, it speaks of the origin of life with God.  

God spoke to Abraham. God spoke to him and promised to make Abraham the father of many nations and his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. I love that promise. Not that I have any genetic claim to this promise but because of the content of the second part of that promise. That Abraham’s descendants would be the light to the Gentiles. The Most High God, chose Abraham as his inheritance after the people of the earth defied God at Babel, but God did not give up on the people. He did not give up on my people, our people. We are among the nations that need light.

I mention Babel because it is important to the story. Adam and Eve, our first parents lived with God in the Garden until their fall. We often regard this as the original sin, but I do not want us to consider that branch of theology right now. After that fall, the people were still together. But shortly after this fall Cain moved away from his father’s house and built a city.

There is a ministry called the Bible Project that has recently studied the concept of the city in their podcast and tomorrow they will be releasing an animated video that highlights the core of what they found through the course of their study. I encourage you all to watch this. But I mention it here because the city is important. We live in a city. A city is where the population lives. It is where all the produce, all the goods, all the crafts go to be distributed. We need the cities as humans because it is the city that gives us civilization.

The first city, however, was built by Cain. The dawn of civilization has its roots not in righteousness but in fear and self-preservation. Cain built his city out of fear. He feared that everyone around him would recognize the mark that God put upon him and would kill him. Even though God had promised protection, Cain did not believe. Cain, like so many of us, chose to do things for himself, he decided to make his own way and provide for his own protection. This protection became the first city.

This fear-based lifestyle took root on the earth. Soon more cities will be built, and more people will take on the lifestyle of Cain. These cities would exhibit power and control over the surrounding land, and eventually their influence would extend to such a degree that it would brush up against the influence of other cities. For a city to continue to grow they would then need to exert influence over these other cities. This is the emergence of nations and nations would then extend to the borders of other nations to form empires. This was occurring throughout the known world. But how do cities and nations extend their influence over other cities and nations? War.

We are told that there was a second great fall in the book of Genesis. Corruption increased among the people. The corruption spoken of is traditionally recognized as the forbidden knowledge of the gods. This knowledge was the knowledge of magic, weapons of war, seduction, and divination. I mentioned in a message a couple of years ago that we could look at all this as humanity consuming the earth beyond subsistence. This corruption saddened God. This wasteful use of the blessing that He had given, the use of God’s grace for manipulation, lusts, and war caused God to act. God was required to save creation from human conquest, and he found one family that still honored him among the multitude. He had this one family build an Ark, and within this Ark God would preserve and restart creation.

You would think that after this reboot, we would finally listen. From this one family God is said to have repopulated the earth. Three family branches. Two were blessed and one was cursed. The cursed family is said to have gone out into the world and like Cain he built a city. The cycle begins again. And for a third time God is moved to action. This third event mentioned in the ancient scriptures revolves around a tower. The people of the city again want to make a name for themselves, so they build a tower to the heavens.

In ancient times it was believed that the gods lived on the tops of mountains. These were places that humans could not easily travel to. The people of Babel decided that if they could not climb the mountains, they would build their own. In their mind they were going to force God to interact with them. They were going to force their gods to do their bidding, if they could only build a tower high enough to reach them.

God was again concerned with the direction that humanity was going. If this tower was built, this colossal monument, whoever controlled the tower could control all the nations, because all people spoke one language. We are told that at that moment God again intervened and confused the languages of the people. And he divided the nations among the sons of God and kept Israel as his inheritance.

Did these stories occur just as the writers of scripture claim? I do not know. I believe that God did act in some manner among the people and something like this may have occurred. I believe it because there are pyramids in Egypt, and Ziggurats in Mesopotamia. These colossal monuments were once used but all at once humanity lost the knowledge of how or why they were built, and after this knowledge was lost it has taken millennia for humans to build anything close to the magnitude. I believe, because there are similar stories in all these regions and yet each of those stories have differences, and as we look at them all it causes confusion even to this day. I believe that God did work in this manner, because from that moment in history to today there has existed a remnant of from the nation that God chose as his inheritance.

Out of Ur God called Abraham, and God told him that he would make his descendants like the stars in the sky. Abraham walked with God, as did the son God graced him with in his old age. But Jacob and Esau quarreled. Jacob manipulated his older brother out of his birthright and then deceived his own father to grant him the blessing as well. Esau was furious and because of his rage, Jacob ran.

Both Isaac and Rebekah encouraged him to go to the land of her father. They had him run over five hundred miles back to the place where Abraham left his own father over a hundred years prior. Jacob ran for his life. He ran because he deserved everything his brother wanted to give. He ran because he knew he deserved death for his deception. We often forget how terrible Jacob was in his youth. We look instead at his life later when he was old, but when Jacob was young, he was a real piece of work.

Jacob and Esau both had flaws. Neither are said to have followed in their father’s footsteps. Isaac was seen meditating in the field and that is what attracted Rebekah to him, and yet we do not hear Jacob and Esau living that same sort of righteousness. All we hear is of Esau’s shortsightedness and whining when the consequences of his choices came to pass. Then we hear of his rage and jealousy against those he deemed responsible for his own failures. We hear of Jacob’s conspiring and manipulation, and again we see his fear as he runs from the consequences of his actions. We are all like Jacob and Esau.

“Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.” We are not immediately told how far Jacob ran that day, but it is implied that he did not stop once he left Beersheba until this point. Later in the story we are told that he called the place Bethel. The distance from Beersheba and Bethel is around sixty miles which on foot is quite far. The world record for how far a person can run in twenty-four hours is about 188.6 miles and that record was set in 1984. Maybe Jacob happened to be on an animal of some sort, we are not told, but sixty miles in a day is a great distance. Many scholars question this, but I think there is a logical explanation, he kept going through one day into the next. And when he could go no further, he fell to the ground in exhaustion. He crawled over to a stone in that place and rested his head on it and he slept.

Jacob is running for his life. For sixty miles he contemplated everything. Each step he took to the north he remembers the journey of his grandfather. Every mile he travels he sees himself undoing everything his family had worked for all these years. Each step goes deeper into failure. And now he can go no farther. He is at the end of himself, and he crumbles to the ground.

When I was in school studying a life of prayer and looking into the practice of spiritual direction, I learned that many professional spiritual directors would encourage their clients to enter contemplative prayer after they had exercised. The more strenuous the exercise the better, and most would encourage you to pray after lifting weights. I had always wondered about this, but the reason is that our bodies will become more completely relaxed after this sort of exertion. I think this is what we are seeing here with Jacob.

“And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it…”

I mentioned the three failures of humanity as we made our way to this point for a reason. These were stories that the people of these ancient nations knew. They may have come in different forms, some may have called Noah, Gilgamesh, but the stories would be similar. Because these people were not as distant as we think. They traded with one another. And as they traded, they shared cultural insights and stories along with other news. We know that the nations of Mesopotamia and Egypt had vast amounts of trade because we have read the documentation of this. What Jacob sees in this dream appears to be a stairway to heaven. The very thing the ancients sought to build, he is seeing before his eyes and standing at the top is God the Most High.

I want us to just stop and consider this for a moment. Consider what Jacob might be feeling. So often we do not read this story in complete context. We take this out and just think of it as a nice little story that happens on some cool evening while Jacob is relaxing. But Jacob is running for his life because he stole the birthright and blessing from his brother. He is running because he is a man of deception and that has all come back to bite him. He is running because he is corrupt and worthless. And he sees God standing there, looking down at him.

Then God speaks to him and says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” God knows who he is. He knows his father, and his father’s father. And Jacob knows that he has not followed in his father’s footsteps. “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And in you and your seed (or offspring) shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

Imagine what you would be thinking at that moment. You are running out of fear for your life. You have left your father’s house with only the clothes on your back, everything you had is gone, left behind because you had done something stupid. And now God is looking down on you, and he repeats the same promise to you that he had spoken to your grandfather. Why? Why do I deserve this? What have I done to gain this favor? Nothing.

God did not choose Israel because they were better than everyone else. They are just like us. But there is a difference, God chose to redeem humanity through them. It is through their history and their sacred writings that God gave His wisdom and light. He could have chosen anyone, he chose them. This does not mean that they get a free pass to paradise, it only means that the knowledge of God begins with them, with Abraham.

Jacob lays there on the ground gazing at this stairway, listening to the words being spoken to him, and he has a choice to make. Will he believe or not?

God continues, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  God knows what Jacob is thinking as he is laying there on the ground. He knows that Jacob believes that he has just lost it all. He is running out of the land of Promise, and God assures him, “I will be with you as you run, and when you are ready to stop running, I will bring you back here where you belong.”

Jacob woke from his sleep, and he was afraid. He thought that he could have stumbled onto sacred ground without knowing it. He was confused, afraid, and in awe. But something changed that night. He left Beersheba toward Haran, and he came to a certain place that night and rested as the sun set. He ran nonstop for a day. He ran until he could run no more. He woke up and instead of running again, he built a pillar. He piles up stones and places the one he used as a pillow on top and he pours oil on them.

Oil is important in the ancient world. It is vital to survival. It was used as medicine as well as food. It was a great source of healthy energy and something that Jacob would need for the next five hundred miles he would travel. He left with minimal rations. He left in a rush. And he builds this pillar, this altar at that place and he pours this life sustaining liquid on the altar. Why? He has made his choice.

He will continue the journey to Haran, but he goes for a different reason. He stands before this pillar and he looks up to the stone on top and he says, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”

Jacob trusted in himself prior to this moment. Jacob’s faith was to obtain what he wanted however he could. That lifestyle set him on a path of destruction, and he ran out of fear. He heard the stories of his grandfather’s faith and the faith of his own father, but that was not the life he chose before, he wanted more. He wanted the blessing, he wanted the birthright, he conspired to take what he wanted even though it was not freely given. He was a liar and a thief. He was Jacob the heel grabber and deceiver. He ran, as so often we do. He ran because he was afraid. As we do also. Yet God was with him even before he knew him. And he is with us. God was working in Jacob’s life, and he met him where he was that night. And he will meet you too.

God fulfilled his promise to Jacob. He brought him back to the land of his father. God fulfilled the promise to Isaac, and he did make his offspring into a nation. God fulfilled the promise that he made to Abraham. The light has come into the world, Jesus. Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world to make disciples, and that he would be with them even to the end of the age. God has fulfilled his promise through Jesus and will continue to reverse the damage our nations of cities have caused through those of us that believe in his name and entrust our lives to him. Do we have faith? Or do we run in fear? Will we continue down a path of destruction and seeking to get what we want however we can? Or will we live as stewards of God’s blessings? Will we live as takers, or will we be a blessing to our community? Will we and our Meeting become Bethel to those who need rest?

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They are Just Like Us

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

July 16, 2023

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Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

Genesis 25:19–34 (ESV)

19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

The story of Isaac and his descendants is interesting. Like his father and mother, Isaac and his wife faced struggle. Abraham received a promise from God that he would be the father of a multitude, or many nations. That his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. I find this promise to be interesting, because like many things it is layered, the interpretation of this promise could be like, as in quantity. It could also be like, as in of similar substance. This second interpretation is more spiritual in nature because we know from the great scholars and poets of, They Might be Giants that the sun (or stars) is a “mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace. Where hydrogen is built into helium at a temperature of millions of degrees.” What the like of the second interpretation of God’s promise to Abraham could be in this instance is that the descendants would be like the stars in an ancient cosmological sense, meaning they would be like divine creatures. They would have a nature that is physical as well as spiritual.

I mention this dual interpretation of this promise because it highlights the reality of humanity. There are always multiple ways to look at our present circumstances. There actually can be more than one right way to an answer. It is shocking to even consider the possibility, but we have all experienced it. Let us consider math. I am a math traditionalist; I will add my numbers right to left carrying the one and all that until I get to the sum. My wife, although we are of the same generation, did math differently. She was doing new math before new math was a thing. And it irritated me, because she can do basic math in her head twice as fast as me. We both get the same answer but the way we get there is different. We have different perspectives, and value different things as humans. When we look at the promise to Abraham many of us will look at it in a numerical sense, while others would consider it from a spiritual perspective.

This shows up in the interactions of the people involved as well. Abraham trusted God, he believed and even entrusted his life to this promise. But he waited many years for this promise to be fulfilled. There were moments where Abraham regarded this promise from a spiritual perspective and at other times, he was convinced that it was numerical or physical. This got him in trouble. It was when he regarded things in one perspective above the other that he began to look at his situation and question the method that God used. In those moments he was convinced by his own wife, who was barren and really wanted him to have a son, to take a servant as a surrogate. This disfunction within, caused by focusing too heavily on one side of the promise, led to division.

Isaac learned from his father. He watched how his aged father lived his life. He saw the great faith his father held. He witnessed his father’s resolve that his God would provide. Isaac had firsthand knowledge of this when he walked with his father to the mountain of sacrifice. We spoke about this a few weeks ago, and I focused on the provision of God. I minimized, at that time, the direction that God gave. All our translations and traditions state that God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, which fits in the context. But the word offer can also mean ascend or go up to. Abraham offered his son at God’s command, and we praise his faith, but we often do not consider that maybe Abraham misunderstood.

Could it be that God asked Abraham to go with his son to offer sacrifices together? Could it be that the test really was to see if Abraham would fully trust that God would provide the sacrifice for them? I have always struggled with that story, but I think it was more about God wanting Abraham to bring Isaac into the life of faith more than we think. And that is what happened. God will provide is the only answer Abraham would give his son as they walked to that mountain to worship. Abraham had told his son his entire life how God had given Isaac to them to fulfill the promise God had given early in his life. He would have told his son all about this because Isaac knew his family was different. He was the only child in encampment with parents so old, and I am certain Isaac asked as many why questions as my children. Isaac knew his place within the family. Isaac knew the blessing, the cherished relationship, the hope that surrounded his existence. And God commanded Abraham to take this boy, this promised boy through whom he promised the blessings would become realized, up to offer a sacrifice. And God told Abraham that he would provide.

Isaac watched as his dad walked up the mountain. He watched as he looked for something to sacrifice. He watched and even helped build the altar. He saw it all, but when it came time to begin the ritual, the only available sacrifice was himself. We speak of the faith of Abraham, but the real story is the faith of Isaac. Isaac listened to his father; he trusted that God would provide a sacrifice for Himself. He trusted enough to allow his own father to tie his hands and lay his body on the wood covered altar. And he remained silent.

Isaac grew and for forty years he remained unmarried. You would think that his parents would have a sense of urgency with finding Isaac a wife as soon as possible, yet they waited. Only after Isaac’s mother died did Abraham decide to find a bride for his son. Isaac watched and listened as his father gave his most trusted servant instructions. He watched as this man, who was like an uncle to him, loaded up the animals and traveled to the distant land Isaac only heard about in stories. And where was Isaac when this servant returned but in the field meditating or praying. We are not told of Isaac’s anxiety or if he even had any. If Isaac was like any of us, I imagine he was concerned about the lack of a bride, and probably had been for the past twenty years. Yet we only know that Isaac listened to his father and that he went into the fields to meditate. That gentle and confident spirit was seen by Rebekah the moment she saw him. And without hesitation she followed Isaac into his mother’s tent to become his wife. Isaac had faith.

We see this faith in greater ways today. Isaac was forty when he married Rebekah and for twenty years, they remained childless. God had assured him that the promise given to his father remained and was transferred to him. Isaac was to become the father of the nations of promise. The promised nations like the stars resided again with a barren family. For twenty years they waited, but what does Isaac do in that time? Does he follow in his father’s footsteps and take matters into his own hands as was his cultural right? No. He prayed for his wife.

This is something I want us to dwell on. We live in a time and culture that expects things to be instant. Over the course of the lives represented in our meeting we have gone from no Television, to having a Television, to VHS, to DVD, to mail order DVD Rentals, to Redbox, to the ability to stream on any screen that happens to be near by any movie we want instantly. We struggle with waiting so much that I have had to tell angry customers that have waited an hour for service in a store, that they had only been in line for two minutes. We do not know how to wait, and when we are required to do so it becomes unbearable. Isaac was promised to be a father of nations just like his father before him, and yet God required him to wait. Isaac’s only recorded response was to pray. And God heard his prayers.

When Isaac was sixty years old, Rebekah became pregnant. She also was not in prime childbearing years. We do not know Rebekah’s age at the time of the marriage. There are some weird attempts at trying to determine her age, some are scary. All we really know is that she was old enough for the family to consider her preference in the matter. This means that she was considered an adult, most likely older than most women entering marriage in that era, because why else would they ask her? Even if she was a teenager at the time of their marriage, she would have been in her upper thirties after twenty years of marriage. This does not seem strange today, but in ancient times it was. There was not birth control in those days, most newly married couples would be having their first child within the first year of marriage. Yet Isaac and Rebekah had been married twenty years. Kristy and I have been married for twenty years, and Albert is nine. That was eleven years and believe me I wondered.

Rebekah conceived, and as the children grew within her, she became aware of something strange. The movement within her body was such that she was concerned. I do not know if they were able to determine if there were twins, but Rebekah knew that the quantity of elbows hitting her kidneys was beyond what she expected. She knew that the children within her were struggling. For twenty years she had lived with her husband Isaac. She watched as he walked in his quiet confidence. She watched as he lifted his anxieties to his God even after two decades of barrenness. She saw him remain faithful to her, when there was no taboo for him to find other means of ensuring the continuation of the family name. Rebekah observed Isaac’s faith and she followed his lead. When the children within her presented concern, she inquired of the Lord. Both Isaac and Sarah sought God before they did anything else.

If you learn nothing else from me, I hope that you learn that prayer is the most important thing in faith. Our purpose statement for Willow Creek is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the Love of Jesus with others. I like that statement a great deal. I have taken that very purpose statement to the Yearly Meeting as my definition as to what we as Friend should be. The reason I love this statement is because it reflects what I see as the lifestyle of Jesus. He made it his custom to worship with the community. That is loving God. Jesus withdrew often to pray in the isolated places, embracing the Holy Spirit. Jesus would then minister to those within the community through teaching and signs. This ministry is living the love of Jesus with others. Worship, prayer and ministry is the lifestyle of Christ and right in the middle of it is prayer.

Isaac lived a life of prayer. Rebekah, when she faced a problem, also inquired of the Lord. Some might say that she went to the prophet to seek some sort of oracle. I understand why they might say that because when they speak of Isaac he just prays, but Rebekah inquires. It does not really matter how Rebekah inquired, if she went to a prophet or if she prayed like her husband, what matters is that she inquired. Her desire and her faith rested in God. And God told her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

The babies are born and the first emerges victoriously. He is ruddy or red and his body is covered in hair. This baby is healthy and appears to be ready to take on the world. And Rebekah and Isaac name him Esau. The funny thing about his name is we would be led to believe that Esau means either red or hairy like the description we are given. But it is not. Red is more closely linked to the name given to his descendants, Edom. And Hairy is more closely related to the city he would later build Seir. Esau is more likely related to a word meaning handling rough. This could be attributed to his hairiness, like he is rough or rugged like a wild animal. Or it could be related to his brother’s roughhousing at birth.

Jacob can come from a couple of sources, but most likely the parents are toying with words again. It was said that Jacob was holding his brother’s heel when they were born, so Jacob can mean heel catcher or supplanter. I like the wordplay here because it really speaks who he is. Jacob would later be named Israel which meals wrestles with God. But prior to this divine bout he wrestled or tripped up his older brother. The second idea of his name could relate to the word that means may God protect. I like the word play personally, and although ancient naming systems are important, I also think parents of ancient times would have fun with the names like we do today. I love my children’s names but if I am honest the only reason, we really chose them was that they sounded good together.

Isaac and Rebekah lived a life of faith, but their sons, were different. Esau grew to be a strong outdoorsman. It is not hard for us to construct a mental image of Esau with the description we are given. He was dark and handsome. With thick hair. Some believe he had red hair but for me I have always pictured him to resemble Native Americans. He was outside, with sun kissed skin, in tune with the natural world. Jacob. Jacob stayed in the tent and was quiet. Other than the wrestling part, I always pictured Jacob to be more studious. I always saw him as short and thin.

Jacob was quiet, probably more contemplative. Esau, when they boys get older, comes across as boisterous. He comes in from the field and he was exhausted. “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” He smells the stew and demands. While Jacob the quiet contemplative one uses his brother’s hastiness to his own advantage. “Sell me your birthright now.”

Jacob is the heel catcher. He knows how to manipulate his brother. He knows how to use his brother’s own personality against him for his own advantage. Esau is stronger than Jacob, but Jacob controls this wild man. “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Esau is prone to exaggeration. He is rash, he lives by his stomach meaning his mind is focused only on his immediate needs. There is a place for people like this within our society. They remind us to live in the moment and to enjoy life as it comes. But their weakness is forward planning. They consume now without regard for the future. And because of this, no matter how strong and commanding they may be in that moment, they will eventually be controlled by others.

Jacob is the opposite of his brother in every way. He does not live in the moment, instead he manipulates the moment to deceive other to bend to his will. Esau commands attention immediately, Jacob quietly weaves through the situation. Esau claims to be dying of hunger, and Jacob as he draws the soup seemingly in compliance to his brother’s will, with a word causes his brother to give up his position as the first born.

This story is filled with human experience, it is one of those stories we can identify with. Isaac was a quiet contemplative man, and his wife was one that inquired of the Lord when problems arose. Their children, like typical adolescent siblings, just work against each other. What can we glean from these words?

The immediate thing that comes to mind is we need to allow our children to be themselves. Yes, Jacob manipulated Esau to swear to give Jacob the birthright for a bowl of soup. But let us look deeper. Inheritance in ancient times was straightforward. They would count the number of eligible heirs, in this case two, and add one. Each would get a portion but the eldest would get a double portion. Isaac would have split his property into thirds and the youngest would get a third and the eldest would get two-thirds. We can say it is not fair, and it does not really matter. This is not our culture, but the reasoning is that the eldest was responsible for the younger even in adulthood. They required the double portion because the younger siblings would always have the eldest as a safety net in times of trouble. That extra portion is ancient unemployment for the others in the family, and that is a great deal of pressure for the eldest.

Esau was not a businessman. He was a man of the outdoors. He was at home hunting game, not leading a tribe. We are told that Esau despised his birthright because of the stew. I think he really despised his birthright because he knew he was not qualified. He knew he was not a planner; he knew he was not a herdsman. He knew, on merit, his brother deserved the birthright. Even though his father loved him more, Esau feared failure. He could not bring himself to even fight for his birthright because the responsibility scared him. All he wanted to think about was a nice bowl of soup.

Raise children in the way they should go, the Proverb says. It does not say in the way we think they should go, but in the way they should go. Esau was a hunter, Jacob dwelled in tents. When we attempt to force those around us to conform to our expectations, we develop resentment. Thus, Esau despised his birthright.

The second thing I want to point out is even the best parents mess up. Isaac loved Esau because he ate his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. These were people of great faith, people we wish we could be like, yet they were not perfect. They fostered favoritism and resentment. Even though Jacob was more qualified to lead the family, the favoritism of his father toward his brother brought out the worst aspects of Jacob’s personality. And the favoritism of the mother later would solidify it. And they could not stop themselves from doing it.

Parent’s cut yourselves some slack. Those of us watching other’s parent children, offer grace not judgment. Isaac and Rebekah were good parents. They encouraged their children to live into their own personalities. Isaac allowed Jacob to live in the tents and did not force him to go hunting like his brother. But even the best parents are not perfect.

And the third thing. Our actions have consequences. Jacob’s name became a synonym for deceiver. This is exactly flattering, and I do not think God allowed the writers of the Torah to include this as something to aspire to be. Jacob’s deception and manipulation did not encourage his brother’s praise, it caused him to hate the system and his place in it. These brothers would eventually be so torn and jaded that Esau would seek to kill Jacob and Jacob ran out of fear for his own life. You can live in the moment and find yourself wishing you thought things through. And you can plan and scheme only to get all you wanted, only to find that the very thing you desired was already there.

Like I said, this story is the story of human life. A psychologist would diagnose Esau with borderline personality disorder. Jacob would be bullied at school yet would eventually be the manager you beg for a job. Isaac likes a good meal. And Rebekah just cannot imagine her child doing anything wrong. We are all human; we make mistakes, and we face consequences. It does not mean it is all good, it means we should be mindful of our own actions and look out for those around us. If you tend to be boisterous and live in the moment, slow down and consider if you are hurting yourself or those around you. If you are quiet and systematic, step back and stop yourself from taking advantage of a situation that you know that person will regret. And for us parents, be intentional and fair.

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What is Faith?

By Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church

July 9, 2023

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Click to read in Swahili

Bofya kusoma kwa Kiswahili

Genesis 24:34–38, 42-49, 58-67 (ESV)

34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great. He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys. 36 And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old, and to him he has given all that he has. 37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell, 38 but you shall go to my father’s house and to my clan and take a wife for my son.’

42 “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, 43 behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’ 45 “Before I had finished speaking in my heart, behold, Rebekah came out with her water jar on her shoulder, and she went down to the spring and drew water. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46 She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels drink also.’ So I drank, and she gave the camels drink also. 47 Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49 Now then, if you are going to show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.”

58 And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” 59 So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!” 61 Then Rebekah and her young women arose and rode on the camels and followed the man. Thus the servant took Rebekah and went his way. 62 Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb. 63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. 64 And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel 65 and said to the servant, “Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

What is faith? We throw this word around in religious communities, but I wonder if we understand what it means. Theology of the Protestant branches of Christianity, often says we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. Of course, this statement is loaded. It is biblically supported but in many ways that statement has more cultural and political connotations to it than we might initially believe. It was derived from Luther’s devotion to sola scriptoria or scripture alone as the test of truth, but he developed this tradition of thought as a protest against the teaching of his clerical contemporaries. I am not opposed to this idea of Protestant theology. I agree that it is fully supported by scripture but what I question within this statement is what faith is. If we were to just type faith in a Google search, we will find a definition of the word which says faith is a complete trust or confidence in someone or something. The second definition listed is strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. I understand the meaning of the word, but do you see the problem? There are many that have faith. Even those that Luther opposed had faith. Even those that opposed Jesus had faith, yet Jesus taught that many will be told that the Father never knew them. When I first began pastoral ministry, I read a great deal. I still do, but early in my ministry I had many questions and I often felt like I was completely unprepared. I was unprepared. I did not get official training in a bible college to take on a ministry role. I studied crop science. I wanted to get involved in the emerging scientific breakthroughs in crop genetics and assist in relieving world hunger and malnutrition. I am still amazed at what advancements are being made in that sector of our economy. Now after twenty years of ministry I firmly believe that there was a reason I did not take the traditional path to ministry. I have a background that is different than many in the ministry. I asked questions that others did not. These questions I feel were and are important, because they are often the questions that many we see as deconstructing ask. We do live in an interesting and exciting time for the church. Many look at the world around us and they may not see what I see. But we do live in an exciting time. I mentioned the theology of Luther. He is widely accepted as the figurehead of the reformation. He of course is only one of many reformers. He lived in a time of great change within the western world. There were people that sought to reform the church prior to Luther, the anabaptists were among those that proceeded Luther, but their movements did not have as great of an early impact because they lacked something that Luther had access too, the printing press. Fifteen years ago, just five years into my pastoral career, we had a pastor’s retreat with pastors from the Evangelical Friends Church and Friends United Meeting. This was the only united pastor’s retreat there has been in twenty years. The speaker at this conference was Leonard Sweet. I was excited for this conference. I was excited because as I mentioned before I was unprepared for ministry. This prompted me to seek answers to my questions. This eventually led to me enrolling in a graduate program and while I was in school, I continued to ask the questions I had. Leonard Sweet was one of the authors that I had found that spoke to the questions I asked. In the early parts of this century there was a moment that was beginning lead by people much like me. It took on the name Emergent. And as the years progressed many of these leaders have fallen away for various reasons but I found their exploration fascinating. One theologian, Robert Webber, wrote a book called Ancient-Future Faith, Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern world. This was published in 1999, so even when I read this book it was a few years old. But what many in this Emergent movement wanted was to reunite with the ancient roots of our faith traditions. Leonard Sweet in that conference excited me because not only was it a conference uniting the divide among our own tradition, he spoke about the perfect storm within faith. Mr. Sweet explained that a perfect storm occurs when three different meteorological situations emerge into one. The warm air from a low-pressure system comes in from one direction, a flow of cool and dry air within a high-pressure system come from another direction, and they then combine with tropical moisture within a tropical story or hurricane. The result of this convergence is a massive storm that seems to come out of nowhere. This occurred in the early 1990’s and prompted a book and movie called A perfect storm. It is a fearsome and terrible thing, but when Leonard Sweet used this metaphor, it floored me. He explained that there were aspects within our culture, technological advancements, and spiritual curiosity that were coming together in such a way that could lead us into the next great era of the church. Many within the Emergent movement thought that they were in that place, the perfect spiritual storm. I believed it too. I was sitting in a conference where it appeared that there was going to be a reuniting of previously splintered branches. I was excited to see what would happen and I was excited to be part of this new emerging faith. That was fifteen years ago. The elements of Mr. Sweet’s perfect storm are still present, and I think the elements are stronger than ever before. We have been walking through the life of Abraham over the past few weeks, in the book of Genesis. I love this first book of scripture. I love it not because I am a fan of Answers in Genesis, but because this is the book that most of my questions start. As I mentioned before I studied crop science, much of what I studied in my degree often challenged this book of scripture. This is one reason I find it so bizarre that I eventually became a pastor. But the thing about the various traditions of Christianity is that the often encourage questions and exploration. People of deep faith tend to embrace challenging questions because they know that answers will be found. And this is what happened to me. I found a man of science that studied genetics and had deep faith. This man inspired me to continue to seek answers as well as continue to ask questions. We are walking with the patriarch of faith, Abraham, through Genesis. This book tells us about our origin, and it also gives us a glimpse into why there is struggle within life. We can look at it as metaphor or history, it really does not matter. What matters is if we have learned something from these words. There are three profound events that happened early in Genesis that speak to the chaos of humanity: The fall in the garden, the events that led to the flood, and the tower of Babel. These make the perfect storm of chaos and sin. We often only focus on the first of these, the fall in the garden, but all three are important to the story. The fall in the garden is the beginning of sin and of faith. But it is not until after Babel that God begins to focus his revelation through one nation or people. Prior to Babel, all humanity was equal, we were all one people. After Babel the languages were confused, and we are told in Deuteronomy that God divided the people of the nations among the sons of God. This is a weird phrase. One that confuses and even terrifies us. It might even cause us to question our faith. I think that is the whole point. Scripture acknowledges that there are spiritual forces and beings present in our world. These spiritual beings can be benevolent or demonic. They can either point us to the most high God or distract us from him. This story sets the stage for human history. It allows us to look at the various religions of the ancient world together as one. There is a spiritual and physical battle waging between the nations of the earth. Which god will become the greatest, which nation will rule them all? This is human history, even to this day. This is why we fear the rise of Islam in the western world. We are afraid that maybe our God is not as powerful as we once believed. This is why we are so worried about culture wars because we have this perception that political power proves divine favor and power. God did not choose the powerful. Out of all the nations of the world that were divided among the sons of God at Babel, God chose Israel as His inheritance. God chose a nation that at that point in history did not exist and would not exist for centuries. God did not choose power in the eyes of the kingdoms of men. God instead chose a different path. The path of faith. Out of the land of Ur, God called one man. He promised this one man that he would be the father of a multitude and the light to the nations. He promised this yet this man was childless and would remain childless until he was a hundred years old. God did not choose power. Eventually God did provide this promised child. One child is not a nation. One child is barely a family. Yet this is the path God chose as his inheritance. Abraham continued to walk with his God. He entrusted his life to this God. Eventually Abraham’s wife of many years died, and his son had yet been married. Abraham had a problem. He was to be the father of nations, and his promised son, his heir, was also childless. This is not a recipe for a great nation. Abraham sent his trusted servant, we are not told exactly who the servant is, only that this particular servant was the oldest of his household, the one who had charge of all that he had. This servant in many ways was like a son to Abraham, but cultural norms relegated were such that this servant would remain a servant within the house, because the heir was the one that would inherit. This servant was loyal to Abraham and was also loyal to Isaac. His future and the future of the entire house was with Isaac. Abraham took this servant and gave him a task, “swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant was skeptical of this charge. He challenged his master and said, “perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham said absolutely not! “The Lord, the God of heaven, will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” And the servant took the oath. I want us to really consider this oath he has taken. Oaths are not something people in ancient times entered lightly. This is one reason Friends have a testimony against oath taking. We are people of integrity and to place our word on something that we cannot fulfill is something we find abhorrent. The same can be said of the ancients of this culture. If you enter an oath, your life is on the line. This is why the servant was hesitant at first. What woman would come with him to marry some guy she did not know?  Nothing about this situation made sense, and he was told he could not take Isaac with him at all, even if Abraham happened to die before the servant found a wife for him. Abraham had faith that God would provide, and he assured the servant that if the woman would not come, he was free from the terms of the oath. This servant went to the land of Abraham’s father. He took the camels and the various goods Abraham provided and he entered into this bridal quest. He came to a spring at the end of his journey. Before him was either a glorious future or defeat. This is where we are as well. A glorious future or defeat. But notice what the man does. He prays. “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink.’  And who will say to me, ‘drink, and I will draw for your camels also,’ let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.” This servant did not know God, in the same way his master did. He knew of God. He had saw how Abraham remained faithful to this God. He had saw how this God had provided wealth, and even in the twilight years provide a son when all hope was lost. This servant knew of God but had not encountered him for himself. Yet this servant called upon God the only way he knew how. He asked God for a sign. We often see this as testing God, but all of us have participated in this form of prayer at some point. Entire religious movements have been dedicated to this sort of spirituality. God can use this. He can provide for our needs, he at times will provide exactly as we have stated and at other times, He provides in a way that seems coincidental. This servant’s prayer is acceptable because it is in accordance with the faith he has. His faith is in the God of Abraham, he is praying within Abraham’s faith not his own. Abraham’s God is not the servant’s God at this point, so he asks God to provide a specific so that, he be sure. We are told that before he had finished speaking in his heart, Rebekah came out with her water jar. The servant asked his question, and Rebekah quickly drew the water, and without hesitation she offered to draw water for the camels. The servant then visits Rebekah’s family and recites this story to them. And they too are amazed. This is part of the story we did not read today, but the response of Rebekah’s brothers was, “The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” We might find this response hard to handle today, but it is interesting. They gave the blessing before they saw, they gave permission before they had received any traditional bridal price. But what is more important is they allowed Rebekah to choose. They called her to them and asked her, “will you go with this man?” and She responded, “I will Go.” Rebekah and the servant then travel back to the place Abraham and Isaac are living at that moment. The servant went not knowing what to expect. Rebekah went not knowing what to expect. Both proceed into the fogs of the future with little to no assurance, yet they go. And as they approach, they see Isaac. He went out to meditate in the field. This is an interesting point in the story. Some translations say that Isaac was walking or relaxing in the fields, but many say he was meditating. This is because this phrase uses a word that is only used once in all of scripture. We do not fully know how to translate this word but can only look at how other words from a similar root are used. Some of those words mean meditate while others can mean walking or relaxing, some others are even gossiping or praying. The context leads us to believe that Isaac is alone, so gossip is not what is going on. He very well could be walking in the cool of the evening but there is a sense surrounding the scene, that he is not merely walking aimlessly. The manner in which he is holding himself attracts attention. When Rebekah sees this man in the field, she dismounted the camel she was riding on and immediately asks who this man is. She saw something in him beyond words. She saw a quietness, a gentleness, she saw reverence and faith. She saw in an instant the very peace that was within her when she said that she would come flowing from this man. And her response was to put on the marriage veil. And after the servant told the story once again to his master’s son, Isaac took her to his mother’s tent and at that moment they were united. This story is one of faith and growing in faith. The story begins with the faith of Abraham, but it extends through the servant, Rebekah, and Isaac. At every moment each person could have turned away from the course set before them, yet they do not turn, instead they walk confidently forward into that unknown future. What is faith? We can define it with words, but words are not enough. Words fail us at times, they can usher in doubt, and this doubt can cause us to question and turn. What is faith? Faith is walking forward through the doubt. Faith is asking questions and trusting that answers will be found. Faith is personal, and faith is communal. I agree with Leonard Sweet. I do believe that we are nearing a perfect storm of spiritual awakening. I believe this more every day that I live. I believe it because of the very things that bring many to fear. But I do not fear. I do not fear, because faith is not assurance, but submission. It is trust. I have faith because my father had faith. I have faith because my grandfather had faith. I have faith because Dr. Francis Collins, a man I have never met, has faith. All the people that have encouraged me through my life have a similar theme throughout their life, they trusted God. I am lucky because I have a rich heritage of faith. Others do not have the same story. But a servant went out one day after pledging an oath to his master that he would bring a wife back for his master’s son, and God provided. A woman left her father’s house and traveled across the wilderness to marry an unknown man, and God provided love. And from the simple faith of one man, that spread to a servant, to a woman and a son. Through prayers of meditation and pleas for a sign, God provided. And through this one-man God has provided a great multitude and a light to the nations, through a son that emerged from this one man. God does not choose power and politics; he chose to reveal himself through the seemingly impossible. And a storm is brewing. A storm that will cause many to fear and some to marvel. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works but believing loyalty to God who has revealed himself to us through Jesus our lord. Will we have faith?

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