Episode 8 of Quarantine Theology is Up

53934059_10155773595881805_998680905360867328_nIn this episode, I talk with Dr. Holly Beers of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, about her book A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman. This is a fantastic book and I’m truly grateful for the conversation! She offered a number of very interesting insights. Check the interview out here.

Genesis 27 (Part 2)

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Genesis 27

1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me, and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love, and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.”

Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game and prepare for me delicious food, that I may eat it and bless you before the Lord before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my voice as I command you. Go to the flock and bring me two good young goats, so that I may prepare from them delicious food for your father, such as he loves. 10 And you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, bring them to me.” 14 So he went and took them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared delicious food, such as his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. 16 And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. 18 So he went in to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22 So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands. So he blessed him. 24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” 25 Then he said, “Bring it near to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed! 28 May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. 29 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” 30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared delicious food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled very violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. 40 By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck.” 41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you. 43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice. Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran 44 and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— 45 until your brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send and bring you from there. Why should I be bereft of you both in one day?” 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

I once heard somebody say, “Nowhere is the power of the gospel more evident than in the fact that it survives its own preaching.” As a preacher this is not my favorite quote…even as I agree with it completely! We might also say this about God’s covenant promises to His people in the Old Testament: “Nowhere is the power of God more evident than in the fact that His covenant survives the people to whom it was entrusted!”

We continue our consideration of a deeply dysfunctional family that was yet the conduit through whom God enacted and fulfilled His covenant promises. Considering the foibles of the heroes of our faith may unnerve us, particularly Jacob’s deceitfulness. R.R. Reno writes:

…a worrisome question worms its way into our minds. How can the future patriarch inherit his role on the basis of an outright lie? Jacob obtains Abraham’s inheritance in a way that seems to compromise the sanctity of the covenant and make a mockery of God’s law.[1]

It does seem that way. Even so, one of the great lessons of the story of God’s people throughout the ages is that God is able to work wonders despite the deeply flawed human instruments He employs. In other words, the grandeur of God must not be lost in our considerations of the weaknesses of God’s people. We are weak but God is great. So as we consider now the foibles of Jacob and Esau, let us let our consideration conclude with a hymn of thanks to our great God! But first, Jacob and Esau.

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I Know the Names of My Ancestors’ Slaves: A Personal Reflection on Our Current Situation

I know the names of my ancestors’ slaves.

How many people can say that? I can.

The last will and testament of Revolutionary War Brigadier General Richard Richardson was signed in 1780, the year he died. I stand in direct paternal lineage to Richard Richardson. He is truly my Grandfather, times about 6. There’s a monument to him on the statehouse grounds in Columbia, SC, 2 or 3 miles from where I was born at Richland Memorial Hospital. Heck, Main Street in Columbia used to be called Richardson Street after my Grandfather. Every now and again, when we return to my hometown, some of us will drive out to Rimini (about 25 minutes from my parents’ house but less than ten miles from the old homes of my immediate grandparents, all but one of whom have passed on), and see his tomb there on the grounds where the grand old Richardson house once stood: Big Home Plantation, as it was known.

And when we go we also look over at the grave of General Richardson’s beloved horse Snowdrop. Richard Richardson put up a stone for his horse.

I am in many ways proud of my Grandfather. He fought for the patriot cause of freedom and led the Snow Campaign to squelch the loyalist cause in the backcountry of South Carolina. The legend is that the British Col. Tarleton (a pox be upon his memory) had my Grandfather’s sons exhume his body from the grave so that he could see, he said, the man who had eluded him for so long. I like these stories. I like the romance and legend and history of these stories. I realize that in many ways my life is better because of the actions of Richard Richardson.

And yet…

He fought for freedom, but he owned slaves.

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I do not know where their headstones are. Were any put up? I know where his horse is buried. I do not know where his slaves are buried. But I know their names. They are listed in his last will and testament as follows:

IN PRIMUS, I give and bequeath to my well beloved wife, Dorothy Richardson, the thirty-four following Slaves or Negroes (vis) Tom the Carpenter, Judy, Ned & Agar, his wife & 2 children, Tommy, Thisby, Tommy & Fally, Devonshire, Nanny, Paul, Qui, London, Silcey, Moses, Fam, Tohan, Kate, Peter, Peggy, Jack, Pollipus, Balliss, Billy, Stump, Phebe, Gabriel, Phebe, Rachel, John, Priscilla, Fusy, Judah, Balina with their and each of their Issue & Increase…

And later:

I give and bequeath to my beloved daughter, Susannah, my beloved sons—James Burchell, John Peter, Charles and Thomas Richardson, ten Negroes each, to be of equal value and worth with the use given to my other children, and the remaining part of my Negroes to be equally divided between my nine children and that my beloved daughter, Susannah, have the following ten Negroes, being the Tenth part allotted as above (viz) Sarah, Cyrus, Peter, Juky, Jefe, Hancel, Nill Beck, Home, Toby and Jack’s Creek Betty with their future Increase.

And later:

I give and bequeath the rest and residue of my lands to my beloved sons, John Peter, Charles, and Thomas Richardson, to be divided in equal valuation between them, unless my wife should prove pregnant, in such case (if it should prove a Son) then he shall be entitled to an equal part of lands with the three last mentioned and ten Negroes & an equal part of the Surplus…

And, again, later, near the end of the will, because he apparently forgot, he came back around to what he bequeathed his wife, Dorothy, my grandmother:

I give and bequeath to my dearly beloved wife, Dorothy Richardson, one more Slave, named Mulattoe Bob, the weaver, besides those before mentioned…

And there it is. Doled out alongside his featherbeds and sword and buckles and horses and land are his slaves. Handed out. Divvied up. And I ask myself this: If my Great Grandfather’s actions against the loyalists shaped my life for the positive did my Great Grandfather’s actions against Judy, Ned & Agar, his wife & 2 children, Tommy, Thisby, Tommy and Fally, Devonshire, Nanny, Paul, Qui, London, Silcey, Moses, Fam, Tohan, Kate, Peter, Peggy, Jack, Pollipus, Balliss, Billy, Stump, Phebe, Gabriel, Phebe, Rachel, John, Priscilla, Fusy, Judah, Balina, Sarah, Cyrus, Peter, Juky, Jefe, Hancel, Nill Beck, Home, Toby and Jack’s Creek Betty with their future Increase, and “Mulattoe Bob” shape my life for the negative?

The Past That is Not Past

If my experience of freedom is causally connected to my Grandfather’s militaristic efforts 240ish years ago, is my experience of race and racism likewise connected to his owning slaves? Can I have one without the other?

We all live in the tension of what shaped us and what we are trying to become. 240 years ago my Grandfather owned slaves. Many slaves. How did he treat them? I have no idea. No specific anecdotal evidence has come down, at least that I am aware of. But I know this: however he treated them, he treated them, by definition, as slaves. And I also know this: the descendants of those slaves try to think back to their ancestors just as I do to mine. Our efforts at remembering are similar in their desire to know but very different in what they discover.

Does such a thing curse the generations that follow? Are the sins of the father passed to the sons over 240 years?

We are responsible for our own actions, to be sure, but we are shaped by the actions of everything that came before us. I am the descendant of slave owners. Am I thereby guilty? I don’t know. But I am certainly thereby shaped. Necessarily so. Undeniably so. That is how life works. In ways both practical and seemingly mystical we are, to a very real extent, the result of the actions of those who came before. Am I materially shaped by it? Probably in ways I do not know, yes. Psychologically? Spiritually? Certainly so. Has our society been systemically shaped by it? It would be hard to say that it has not been.

When people talk about systemic racism, about racist structures, about unspoken assumptions of prejudice woven into the very tapestry of modern life, some object. “That cannot be,” they say. “How can hatred be systemic? Isn’t hatred limited to actions? Even if it can be shown to be systemic at a given point in time, surely such hatred is purged from our systems by now, right?”

What do I think? I think that 240 years is actually not a very long time. At all. I think this is something that those who think we’ve “moved past” racism need to understand. Time is much, much shorter than we think. Ryan Holiday writes:

It’s sad how disconnected from the past and the future most of us really are. We forget that woolly mammoths walked the earth while the pyramids were being built. We don’t realize that Cleopatra lived closer to our time than she did to the construction of those famous pyramids that marked her kingdom. When British workers excavated the land in Trafalgar Square to build Nelson’s Column and its famous stone lions, in the ground they found the bones of actual lions, who’d roamed that exact spot just a few thousand years before. Someone recently calculated that it takes but a chain of six individuals who shook hands with one another across the centuries to connect Barack Obama to George Washington. There’s a video you can watch on YouTube of a man on a CBS game show, “I’ve Got a Secret,” in 1956, in an episode that also happened to feature a famous actress named Lucille Ball. His secret? He was in Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated. England’s government only recently paid off debts it incurred as far back as 1720 from events like the South Sea Bubble, the Napoleonic wars, the empire’s abolition of slavery, and the Irish potato famine—meaning that in the twenty-first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Ego is the Enemy, p.141-142)

Did you hear that? “In the twenty-first century there was still a direct and daily connection to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

In his 1950 story, Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This is true. Try and deny it.

So when Derek Chauvin put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him, murdering him, he was not doing something in some detached vacuum from all of the racial horrors that have gone on before. He too was shaped by all that came before him and all that is around him, maybe in ways he does not even realize or understand.

My point? Systemic racism as a concept must refer not merely to the organizational and governmental structures that define our particular moment; it must also be allowed to refer to the spiritual and psychological systems of which we are the inheritors and which stand in much closer existential proximity to us than many detractors want to acknowledge.

This is why people are angry: they see this and understand it.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

This is why people are protesting.

They see in modern society the demonic flowering of seeds sown in the past-that-is-ever-present. They do not see a mere action so it does no good to say, “A bad man did a bad thing and has been arrested.” No actions are mere actions. They see, not without reason, a system and a mindset that is part of our national psyche, part of our national soul. The actions are not distinct from the milieu that gave rise to them.

And not only do they see it, I see it. And I detest it. And I gladly join my voice to those condemning it.

Does the past-not-being-past mean that change cannot happen? No, it does not mean that. We can change. It just means that change does not happen when you view the past as something “back there” on which you have shut a door and over which you have washed your hands. Change happens when you take an unflinching look at the present-ness of the past and determine to understand it, name it, see how you are the inheritor of it, and then boldly deviate it from here and now.

We change not because the past is past but because while standing in the ever-flowing river of the past-becoming-present we determine that we would like this present moment to become the past of the future that looks very very different than the past that is our present! (You might want to re-read that one.)

The extent to which the race issue and reality is better is directly correlated to men and women who have understood and acted in this realization: that we must own the past in its ugliness and alter it through hard work in the present.

The Church

May I be allowed one more William Faulkner quote? In 1956 Faulkner wrote an essay entitled “On Fear: Deep South in Labor: Mississippi.” In this essay, Faulkner is describing the many voices that were trying to speak to the issue of race in the South. He cites the voices of senators, circuit judges, ordinary citizens, etc.  He then wrote this:

There are all the voices in fact, except one. That one voice which would adumbrate them all to silence, being the superior of all since it is the living articulation of the glory and the sovereignty of God and the hope and aspiration of man. The Church, which is the strongest unified force in our Southern life since all Southerners are not white and are not democrats, but all Southerners are religious…Where is that voice now?…Where is that voice now, which should have propounded perhaps two but certainly one of these still-unanswered questions?

1. The Constitution of the U.S. says: Before the law, there shall be no artificial inequality—race, creed or money—among citizens of the Unites States.
2. Morality says: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
3. Christianity says: I am the only distinction among men since whosoever believeth in Me, shall never die.

Where is this voice now, in our time of trouble and indecision? Is it trying by its silence to tell us that it has no validity and wants none outside the sanctuary behind its symbolical spire?” (William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches & Public Letters, p.92-106).

Faulkner, himself not a Christian, not only marveled at the silence of the church, he also saw the radical disjunction between the Church’s silence and the resources inherent in the creed in which the church professed to believe!

This stings me. A non-Christian had to tell Christians that the Church really does have a confession that could address and resolve the stain of racism if the Church were to truly embrace and live out its confession!

Faulkner was right. The gospel he rejected in his own life is indeed a gospel that contains the light and healing that we need.

Jesus, even given the Church’s frequent failure to follow Him, is still the answer.

I have debated on whether or not to say anything about all of this. I have not been shy in addressing racism from the pulpit, but I usually try to keep my social media and online presence clear of controversy. That’s an intentional decision. But I have decided that I need to say something now. And here is what I would like to say:

Racism is a hellish evil that must be rooted out and rejected for what it is.

Racism is systemic in ways that those who do not want to admit this likely do not realize.

George Floyd was murdered and his murderers should be tried accordingly.

But What About…

Some of my readers will want to add caveats.

What about good cops? Yes, good cops, of which there are many, should not be smeared by the actions of bad cops even if the structures and systems of law enforcement are critiqued. We have amazing members of law enforcement in our church who love the Lord and want to honor the badge and who rightly, like so many policemen and women, denounce racism and all forms of police brutality. I am grateful for the many men and women who honor the uniform and risk their lives daily for the betterment of our society. I can sit here right now and think of law enforcement personnel in our church who span the racial spectrum: black, hispanic, caucasian. I know their hearts. They in no way condone what happened to George Floyd. It would be obscene to mention them or their peers alongside bad cops who do wicked things.

What about instances of black-on-white crime? All instances of violence and murder should be condemned as demonic and wicked.

Don’t all lives matter? Of course they do.

Does this make looting, violence, and the destruction of property ok? Looting, violence, and destruction of property should be condemned, even as the right to peaceful, passionate protest should be defended.

But here’s the thing: the murder of George Floyd is one of many recent shocking acts that expose the moral rot of racism that many people experience in their daily lives and which many of us will never experience. You can stand in this moment of clarity and outrage and speak to this reality without the subtle protest of endless qualification. It is ok to be outraged at this reality. Doing so does not mean you are betraying other realities that equally deserve outrage.

A few years ago when I preached on abortion I did not have any church members saying, “But what about poverty! But what about corporate greed! But what about…etc. etc.”

We are adept at addressing issues without dragging in all other issues unless the issue being addressed makes us uncomfortable. Racism is the issue on the table. Let us let it be the issue.

It is possible to hate evil in all of its manifestations and yet realize that particular moments call for denunciations of particular evils.

You can say “Black Lives Matter” as a simple statement of truth without having to say everything or anything else. In fact, saying something else when this is the particular issue at hand will feel to many like an effort to silence very real pain and hurt. Black lives do matter. Period. Full stop.

Conclusion

I am the descendant of slave owners. I must strive to understand how that has shaped my unseen world of assumptions and presuppositions. But as the descendant of slave owners I can repudiate their ownership of slaves and learn from their deep and wicked sins so as not to commit and perpetuate my own. In so doing, I can help shape a new past that will be present in the future. In so doing we become agents of change.

I do repudiate my Grandfather’s ownership of slaves.

I do want to understand the ways in which my past has shaped me.

I do want to love all people just as all people are loved by the Lord God.

God help me to do so.

Matthew 4:12-17

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Matthew 4

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The late historian Larry Hurtado wrote a fascinating little book entitled Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? The book seeks to answer that question. Why indeed, given the hardships that Christians suffered in the first three centuries would they choose to become Christians? One answer, according to Hurtado, was that the early Christians proposed an idea that pagan Romans had almost certainly never heard of. Hurtado explains:

In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans or being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse (setting aside the myths of the erotic adventures of various male deities with human females). As MacMullen noted, loving gods or love for gods simply did not figure in pagan piety.

            So is it too much to suggest that the early Christian portrayal of “God” was an attractive and affecting factor for converts? From the frequency of references to the Christian deity as both all-powerful and powerfully loving, it seems to me entirely plausible. In a world of many deities, early Christianity proclaimed one almighty deity in absolute sovereignty over all, beneath whom all other beings were mere creatures, unworthy of cultic reverence. And this all-powerful sovereign deity was moved by a powerful love, so Christian teaching claimed, and so sought and offered a direct relationship with people. I suspect that this was heady stuff, and certainly very different from notions about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and, I suggest, powerfully winsome for some others.[1]

What many pagans found remarkable and, according to Hurtado, attractive, was the surprising idea that this one great God would actually love human beings! “Love” was not something normally attributed to the gods, so this was a strange and exhilarating thought. And Christians did indeed proclaim this…a lot! They were constantly speaking of God’s love for human beings, a love most definitively expressed in Jesus.

Matthew 4 ends Matthew’s introductory section and launches us into the ministry of Jesus. Here we see His loving intent on full display, His desire to call lost and suffering humanity to Himself.

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Genesis 27 (Part 1)

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Genesis 27

1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field and hunt game for me, and prepare for me delicious food, such as I love, and bring it to me so that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.” Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game and prepare for me delicious food, that I may eat it and bless you before the Lord before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my voice as I command you. Go to the flock and bring me two good young goats, so that I may prepare from them delicious food for your father, such as he loves. 10 And you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, bring them to me.” 14 So he went and took them and brought them to his mother, and his mother prepared delicious food, such as his father loved. 15 Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. 16 And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. 17 And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. 18 So he went in to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.” 20 But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” 22 So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands. So he blessed him. 24 He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” 25 Then he said, “Bring it near to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it near to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed! 28 May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. 29 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!” 30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared delicious food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled very violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. 39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. 40 By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you grow restless you shall break his yoke from your neck.” 41 Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah. So she sent and called Jacob her younger son and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself about you by planning to kill you. 43 Now therefore, my son, obey my voice. Arise, flee to Laban my brother in Haran 44 and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— 45 until your brother’s anger turns away from you, and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will send and bring you from there. Why should I be bereft of you both in one day?” 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women like these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?”

In his novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy famously wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”[1] Genesis 27 is a chronicle of one such unhappy family. It is the story of how God worked through a family, yes, but it is also a story of the deep flaws of the family through whom He worked.

Genesis 27 is, in many ways, a picture of dysfunction. “There are no heroes in this story,” writes R. Kent Hughes, “only sinners.”[2] That is true enough. And we are going to explore the foibles of this family. Even so, let us remember that cracked vessels are the only kinds of vessels God has to work with in the human race and, amazingly, he works through this flawed family just as He works through you and me. Consider now the flaws of Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Esau. Today we will consider Isaac and Rebekah.

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Genesis 26:12-35

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Genesis 26

12 And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, 13 and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. 14 He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. 15 (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.) 16 And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you are much mightier than we.” 17 So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there. 18 And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. 19 But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, 20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. 21 Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. 22 And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.” 23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.” 25 So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well. 26 When Abimelech went to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his adviser and Phicol the commander of his army, 27 Isaac said to them, “Why have you come to me, seeing that you hate me and have sent me away from you?” 28 They said, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you. So we said, let there be a sworn pact between us, between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, 29 that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.” 30 So he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. 31 In the morning they rose early and exchanged oaths. And Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace. 32 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” 33 He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day. 34 When Esau was forty years old, he took Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite to be his wife, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite, 35 and they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.

Sometimes it seems like you just cannot get a win. Think about it: when we are disobedient we are rightly robbed of all joy and peace. But when we are obedient the devil attacks us with greater ferocity. In other words, it may appear sometimes that the Christian life is one of great struggle: to repent when we disobey and to endure when we obey!

To say that is to be too pessimistic, of course, for the mercies of God are ever available to His children and, indeed, Jesus promises us rest in Matthew 11:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

This must be understood and grasped: Jesus offers us rest! There is joy and peace in the Christian life. Even so, it is telling that immediately after verse 28 He says this:

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus gives us rest, yes, but it is in the midst of carrying His “yoke” and “burden.” And while these are “easy” and “light,” they are a yoke and burden nonetheless. What is more, the dominant theme of discipleship involves carrying the cross, as we see in Matthew 16:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

What this means, then, is that there is rest to be found in Jesus but it is oftentimes a paradoxical rest that comes in the midst of struggle and spiritual attack. This is pictured nicely in the remainder of Genesis 26 in the trials that Isaac undergoes in the midst of his being blessed by God. We will consider the ways that Isaac was harassed and attacked while he walked with God as a picture of how we are or will be attacked when we do the same.

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Matthew 4:1-11

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Matthew 4

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

Some years ago there was a company called Devil Man Skateboards in El Segundo, California. They put an advertisement in Thrasher magazine asking skate enthusiasts to sign away their souls to the devil and send the certificate in to them. The statement that people were asked to sign read: “I, the undersigned, do hereby give possession of my soul to the devil for eternity, for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”[1]

I suspect that the company was trying to be shocking and edgy for the mainly young skaters who purchased their skateboards. They certainly got the attention they were looking for. Regardless of their motive, it cannot be denied that, in point of fact, that is exactly what the devil would like. He would like for us to sign our souls over to him “for ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.”

Of course, the devil does not usually tempt us with a blatant certificate to that effect, but that is the ultimate goal nonetheless: the enslavement of ourselves to him. That was certainly what he was after in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. What was at stake in that episode, recorded in Matthew 4, was nothing less than the survival and salvation of the human race. Had Christ bowed to Satan, all would have been for nought and ruin.

Let us consider this amazing scene.

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Genesis 26:6-11

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Genesis 26

6 So Isaac settled in Gerar. 7 When the men of the place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he feared to say, “My wife,” thinking, “lest the men of the place should kill me because of Rebekah,” because she was attractive in appearance. 8 When he had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife. 9 So Abimelech called Isaac and said, “Behold, she is your wife. How then could you say, ‘She is my sister’?” Isaac said to him, “Because I thought, ‘Lest I die because of her.’” 10 Abimelech said, “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” 11 So Abimelech warned all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death.”

William James’ book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature which was originally presented as the Gifford Lectures on natural theology in 1901 and 1902, is one of the most significant and famous books presented on religion in American history. Even so, James himself was not a believer and had, to put it mildly, a very vague notion of God. His most explicit account of his religious views is in a letter written in 1904 to psychologist James Leuba:

My personal position is simple. I have no living sense of commerce with a God. I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly. The divine, for my active life, is limited to impersonal and abstract concepts which, as ideals, interest and determine me, but do so but faintly in comparison with what a feeling of God might effect, if I had one.[1]

There is something so very tragic about this. That a keen mind like James’ should only conceive of God in terms of “impersonal and abstract concepts” that “determine” him only “faintly” is truly tragic, for if the scripture reveals anything about God it is that He certainly cannot be reduced to “impersonal and abstract concepts.” On the contrary, God is personal. God is relational.

In scripture this can be seen in God’s interaction with human beings: His giving of laws and commands, for instance, or, more to our point, His establishment of a covenant and a people. Ultimately, the coming of Jesus shatters James’ conception of God to smitherines for the coming of Jesus reveals God’s loving and close heart as well as His intent to save humanity. Jesus is no impersonal or abstract concept!

No, God is relational and it is because of this that He calls us into relationship with Him. One of the ways this manifests itself is in His call for us to be obedient, for us to follow Him. Or, we might say, the relational nature of God can be seen in how disobedience disrupts the harmony of our lives and casts us into a chaos of various manifestations. Disobedience is disruptive to relationship and, inwardly, it is disruptive to the peace that should reign in the hearts and minds of God’s people.

This can be seen in the sad episode of Isaac’s deceit of Abimelech in Gerar. Having just shown amazing faith in obeying God and staying in Gerar and not going to Egypt, Isaac, ever Abraham’s son, now has a pitiful low point of disobedience. And, like Abraham, it involves fear and his wife.

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Matthew 3:13-17

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Matthew 3

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Gregory of Nazianzus was the Archbishop of Constantinople in the 300s AD. He is widely considered to be one of the truly great minds of the church. It is fascinating, then, to see a real show of genuine emotion in him. I say “fascinating” because sometimes some of the writings of the church fathers feel so very heavy and dry. But I would like to show you what Gregory looks like when he is animated and enthused! The occasion is a sermon in which he tells his church that, having finished their Christmas celebrations, they are now going to turn to another exciting event in the life of Jesus. Gregory’s enthusiasm can hardly be contained. Let us hear him:

We recently celebrated the feast of the Lord’s birth…[in which] earth and heaven participated. Together we ran after the star…with the magi we fell and worshiped…with the shepherds light shone around us…and with the angels we glorified him…With Simeon we embraced him ourselves…and with Anna, the patient old woman, we freely returned thanks to God…Thanks be to the one who, as a stranger, is coming to his own…because he glorified the stranger.

But now there is another deed of Christ before us, another mystery. I am unable to control my excitement! I am becoming inspired! Almost like John, I proclaim good news (Matt 3:1), if not as a forerunner, but as a man from the desert! Christ is illuminated; let us be enlightened together! Christ is baptized…let us descend together, so that we might be raised together. Jesus is baptized…[1]

What is it that has Gregory so excited? What is this other event that he seems to put alongside Christmas? It is the baptism of Jesus!

Perhaps you are confused. Perhaps you would say that, yes, the baptism of Jesus is important, of course, but exciting? Honestly, have you ever felt this animated about the baptism of Jesus? Maybe we should!

Gregory was fired up because he understood that the baptism of Jesus was extremely important and carried with it profound truths and beautiful implications. And, in truth, Gregory is right! We should be excited about the baptism of Jesus. Our lack of excitement really just reveals how we have failed to truly comprehend what is going on here, what this baptism means. So let us ask: what does the baptism of Jesus mean?

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Genesis 26:1-6

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Genesis 26

1 Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” So Isaac settled in Gerar. 

It is surely one of the great ironies of the book of Genesis that the child promised to Abraham and Sarah—that waited for, prayed for, agonized over, promised child—would ultimately, upon his arrival, never really play the leading man in any major biblical scene. He is present in critical scenes (i.e., Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice him in Genesis 22), but he is never really given many action or speaking roles. In fact, Genesis 26 is the only real exception (except for when he intercedes for Rebekah in one verse of Genesis 25). Old Testament scholar Robert Alter points out that “this chapter is the only one in which Isaac figures as an active protagonist. Before, he was a bound victim; after, he will be seen as a bamboozled blind old man.”[1]

It is a curious thing. Even so, what we see in Isaac’s screen time in Genesis 26 is something to behold. Simply put, we see what we saw in Abraham: a man of big faith and big follies. It will be seen that Isaac’s role in 26 is quite important, however, for in our chapter we see God communicating the covenant promises to Isaac and we see in Isaac a model both of what to do and what not to do as an heir of the divine promise! The first six verses of Genesis 26 contain a positive and vitally important lesson.

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