Hot Dogs and Eutychus..

There is a curious story in the Bible about the Apostle Paul and a young man named Eutychus. https://www.gotquestions.org/Eutychus-in-the-Bible.html. The story is found in Acts 20:7-12, and involves a young man listening to the Apostle Paul. As Paul talks on into the night, the young man, sitting in the third story window, falls asleep, falls out of the window, and plummets to his death. Luke, who authored the the gospel which bears his name and the book of Acts, was a doctor, and an eyewitness of this event. He clearly states that Eutychus died from his fall. But Paul runs outside and brings Eutychus back to life, returning inside to finish his talk and eat with the crowd– who are amazed and relieved to have their friend alive and well.

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Luke’s story doesn’t say whether or not Eutychus was alone in the third story window, or leaning against a wide window frame or perched precariously before he fell into “a deep sleep.” I have always imagined him perched comfortably leaning against the side of a wide and open window frame, one leg drawn up and the other dangling as he listened to Paul speak. As the night wore on, he may have slouched a bit, or even turned to lean his whole back against the frame, pulling both legs up onto the wide ledge. My mental picture may be completely wrong, but I don’t think of him hugging a narrow space and sitting tense and clinging before sleep claimed him.

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A few days ago, I referenced an old hymn knows as “The Solid Rock” or “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand. ” One of the lines of the hymn states, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ Name.” But the flip side of this is that Jesus IS the solid rock and the “frame” on which we can both stand and rest secure.

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I was reminded today of another old hymn; one that I heard as a child and did not understand at all. Have you ever heard a new song, and completely mis-heard the lyrics? As a young child, I often heard hymns sung that were old to the adults but “new” to me. This was one of them. I paid little attention to the first verse, but the chorus!?! I was sure the congregation was singing, “Wienies (the word my grandparents sometimes used for hot dogs)! Wienies! Wienies on the everlasting arms…” It sounded like a righteous chorus of hot dog vendors at a baseball game. I giggled and snorted, and my grandmother, who was standing next to me, quietly leaned over and asked what I found so funny. When I explained it to her, she too began to giggle a little, and we shared a (quieter) giggle and smiles throughout the rest of the hymn. (Sacrilegious, I know, but it seemed very funny to a five-year-old.) Later, my grandmother lovingly explained the hymn–turning a “silly” song into a wonderful testament of God’s tender, loving care that touches me to this day.

I don’t recommend to anyone that they trust themselves to a window frame, a third story balcony, a too-comfortable seat at the theater, or to hot dogs eaten in bleacher seats at the baseball game. God doesn’t call us to get comfortable! Even if we are listening, and trying to follow Jesus, we may still fall– literally, like Eutychus, or figuratively. We may misunderstand, or get confused or weary and lose our focus. We may put ourselves at risk by leaning on the wrong frame.

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God could have kept Eutychus from falling from that third story window, but I believe He meant for that story to come down through the ages. It is not just a miracle, and a testament to the power of God and given to the Apostle Paul. It is a great reminder that even when we are trying to listen and follow God, we can still end up trusting in the wrong things and “falling asleep”. But no matter how far we fall, or how broken or “dead” we may seem to be, God sees us, cares for us, and wants to give us new life! We can rest “safe and secure from all alarms” when we remain in (or return to) the reassuring, everlasting arms of our Savior.

Some days, I feel like Eutychus– lying broken and useless three stories below where I began. Other times, I feel like a confused hot dog vendor, calling out to God for “Wienies”, when I really need Wisdom and Grace. But God is faithful to bring me back time after time, wrapping me in his amazing “Everlasting Arms”:

There my Burdened Soul Found Liberty

Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”

Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?

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It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.

And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.

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Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!

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Everyone’s a Critic!

Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!

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But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.

“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.

“Well, everyone is a critic.”
“I’m only saying what is true.”
“Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”

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There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:

Judging Others
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NIV

Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts
But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Philippians 2:14-16
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
James 4:11-12
Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Criticism,-Amongst-Believers

For more, visit: https://deeptruths.com/bible-topics/criticism.html

This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.

Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV)
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV

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God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.

Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today.
Amen

Why Do the Wicked Prosper?

There is no way I can give a definitive answer to the above question. In a thousand blog posts or three volumes of analysis, I could never cover all the issues this question brings up. I offer the question today for two reasons:

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  1. This question is raised in the Bible. Asaph raised it in Psalm 73 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+73&version=ASV; Habakkuk and other prophets also asked it. Solomon pondered it in Ecclesiastes, and Job cried out against it. God is not afraid of such questions, but He doesn’t give glib answers, either. The psalmist received no immediate answer directly from God, but when he entered the sanctuary of the Most High, and considered the eternal destination of the wicked, his attitude changed. His envy, anger, and bitterness melted in a flood of awe and worship. God does not want us to be bitter, angry, or envious of the wicked; nor does He want us to be apathetic toward injustice, abuse, and inequality. There is something profoundly disturbing when we see the wicked prospering at the expense of the righteous and innocent. It should cause us to turn to God and seek His help.
  2. That brings me to the second reason I want to grapple with this topic today. I need to! I have the tendency to want an immediate answer, and to see the wicked suffer– until I am in the presence of a Holy God. There is no wickedness that is outside of God’s justice, or of His grace. God WILL bring complete justice– in HIS time. But His primary goal is to bring redemption, restoration, healing, hope, and salvation– even to the wicked; even to ME. God’s justice is not just reserved for those I deem to be wicked and prosperous. God’s ways are not my ways. What if, in my eagerness to condemn the wicked, I miss God’s plan to change the heart of a Zacchaeus, or an Ebenezer Scrooge, or a sinful King David or arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar? No amount of wickedness can overwhelm God’s love and mercy, or His ability to make “all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) for those who love Him and are called to serve Him.
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When tempted to dwell on this question, there are some wonderful alternatives. See some of the links below.

https://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/march-2013/when-the-wicked-flourish/

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-7-what-do-when-evil-prevails-malachi-217-36

https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/job-the-revelation-of-god-in-suffering

https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/righteous-suffer-wicked-prosper/

https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-stories/bible-story-of-zacchaeus.html

Lord God, today I pray for eyes that see Your face, even in this broken and fallen world. May I look to see Your patience, Your mercy and Your grace, as well as Your Holiness and Justice. May I be an instrument of all these aspects of Your character as I live in Your grace today. Thank You for Your great mercy toward me, and to the promise of Eternal Life with You. Amen.

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From Fiery Furnace to “The Dew of Heaven”

God is all-powerful. He is sovereign over all the universe for all eternity. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Yet, in His majesty, He is merciful; unwilling that any should perish.

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In the book if Daniel, we encountered the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into a fiery furnace for failing to bow down to a giant statue commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar. The mighty king of Babylon was an absolute ruler, and failure to obey one of his decrees could result in death. That it did not end in death for the three young men baffled and impressed their king. But it didn’t change him.

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The very next story in the book of Daniel is one that is less familiar– it is another curious interjection into a book of (seemingly) disjointed stories. In chapter three, Daniel narrates his friends’ story, in which he is curiously absent. In chapter four, Nebuchadnezzar is the narrator, Daniel is one of the characters, and his three friends are never mentioned. (Because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, he uses Daniel’s Babylonian name, Belteshazzar.)

The chapter begins almost as a mirror image of chapter 2, except the writing style is very different–more formalized, and written more as a proclamation. (https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%204) Nebuchadnezzar is being troubled by a recurring dream. Once again, he calls in all the astrologers, sorcerers, etc., to interpret the dream. However (whether because Nebuchadnezzar is narrating, or because he has learned a little self-control), this time there are no threats involved, and when the lesser wise men fail, Nebuchadnezzar himself sends for Daniel, confident that Daniel can provide an answer. Nebuchadnezzar actually flatters Daniel as he asks for an interpretation, but Daniel is still cautious. This dream is more disturbing than the first, because it is more personal and immediate. God is warning Nebuchadnezzar directly that his pride has gotten out of control and God is about to step in a pronounce judgment on it. God will teach Nebuchadnezzar about humility by causing him to lose everything, including his mind!

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Daniel carefully gives Nebuchadnezzar the interpretation and the warning from God, and adds his own wish that his king might escape punishment by humbling himself before the Almighty God. But in a year’s time, Nebuchadnezzar forgets. In the very act of praising himself, Nebuchadnezzar hears the voice of God, who drives him away from his kingdom, from society, and from rationality. For seven years, Nebuchadnezzar lives as a beast, eating grass, roaming outdoors, and covered with “the dew of heaven”. At the end of that time, he comes to his senses and is restored to his mighty kingdom a wiser, humbler, and grateful monarch.

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What a contrast between these two rulers! Nebuchadnezzar demanded total loyalty and obedience. When it wasn’t given, the reaction was instant fury and a sentence of death. God is the One who ultimately deserves our total loyalty and obedience. When it isn’t given, the sentence is death (Romans 6:23a). But God, who has the complete authority to pronounce the death sentence, is more interested in deliverance than in destruction. Make no mistake, God will punish Sin; God will destroy those who persist in evil and rebel against Him. But God’s heart is reconciliation and redemption. God did not kill Nebuchadnezzar; He didn’t strike out at him in fury and cast him immediately into the fiery furnace of Hell–though He had the power and authority to do so. God had given Nebuchadnezzar his life, his power and his kingdom. He took it away. And then he restored it. God took away Nebuchadnezzar’s ability to reason– and he restored that too. And while Nebuchadnezzar was living as a brute beast– in the middle of his punishment– he was covered with “the dew of heaven.”

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Curiously, this phrase, “the dew of heaven” is used all the way back in the book of Genesis. It is used by Isaac as he blesses his son Jacob (disguised as Esau). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+27%3A+27-29&version=ESV Even as Jacob was practicing deception that would have dire consequences, God’s blessing was being poured out on him by his father. And centuries later, in his midst of punishment, Nebuchadnezzar was blessed by God, who provided for his needs, and ended up giving back all that had been lost because of Nebuchadnezzar’s pride.

God punishes– He punishes those He loves! He teaches, humbles, and disciplines. But He is not in the business of destruction. He was with Nebuchadnezzar throughout his period of madness and humiliation, ready to restore (and even increase) all that he had lost.

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May we honor this God of grace and mercy– his mercies are greater than his wrath, and his grace is greater than all our sin! Nebuchadnezzar finally learned to praise, worship, honor, and obey the “Most High God.” May we do the same.

Jacob’s (Third) Dysfunctional Family

The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.

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It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.

Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.

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So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.

Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!

If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.

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Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!

Jacob the Brother of Esau

The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.

Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.

We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?

In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?

We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.

  • God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
  • God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
  • God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
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  • God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
  • God’s grace is a gift–Jacob didn’t deserve to be favored; but neither did Esau, or Isaac, or Abraham. Nor do any of us. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+3%3A9-18&version=ESV Not one of us has earned God’s blessing. God chooses to love us even in our sin, and chooses to give us the Grace to return and receive His blessing!
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Praise be to the God of Jacob!

Jacob the Cheater

Why do we pray to, sing praises to, and trust in the fortress of “the God of Jacob” (Psalm 46; Psalm 75, etc.)? Isn’t Jacob the one who cheated his brother and tricked his father to steal an inheritance? Wasn’t he a liar, and a thief?

Last time, https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/78948359/posts/2322587905, I wrote about Jacob as the “other son”, the one in the shadows. But Jacob wasn’t content to stay in the shadows. He waited and schemed, and used his brother’s and father’s character traits against them and to his own advantage. Jacob was crafty, and sly, and devious. These are not characteristics designed to build trust or inspire admiration. They are, however, characteristics many of us secretly admire. Jacob tricked his way to the top! He didn’t exactly “steal” his brother’s inheritance– he tricked his brother into giving it away! No bloodshed or fighting…Jacob simply used his brother’s weakness and vanity to get what he wanted. Some might say that Esau didn’t deserve to keep an inheritance he was willing to barter away for a measly bowl of stew. (https://biblia.com/bible/nlt/Ge25.27-34) Even the Bible says that Esau despised his birthright!

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Later, Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, too. This time, he lies and deceives his dying father in the process. This Bible story is curious, and much has been written about whether Jacob and his mother set out to deceive Isaac, and why. Was Rachel trying to cheat her own son, Esau, out of his blessing, and lie to her husband in the process? Why would Jacob want to steal a blessing from his brother when he already had “taken” the birthright?

The Bible doesn’t always give us easy answers and complete explanations. What it does, however, is give us glimpses into the lives of real people and their very real encounters with God. Jacob’s family was a divided family. Isaac was prepared to give everything to Esau when he died. There is no evidence that he was prepared to give Jacob any kind of blessing– it had all been reserved for Esau. Whether this was in retaliation for Jacob’s earlier “trick”, we are not told. Whether Jacob and Rebecca intended for Jacob to appease his father with meat and get “a blessing” , and things got out of hand, or whether they intended that Esau should be cut out of both blessing and birthright, we don’t know. What we see is that Isaac meant to bless only Esau. When the “real” Esau showed up too late, there was nothing left for Isaac to give as a blessing. There was no plan for a secondary blessing– for either son. (Ironically, because Jacob was sent away, Isaac had a “going away” blessing for him that was also denied to Esau.. (see Genesis 28:1!)

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Jacob’s days of cheating and using deception were to leave a lasting impact on his life. He was sent far away from his family, fearing his brother’s anger. He missed years of being with his mother and father; of having their advice, or letting them spend time with their grandchildren. Jacob ended up finding, in his Uncle Laban, a bigger cheat and liar than he had ever dreamed of being; a man whose craftiness cheated Jacob out of years of labor and saddled him with family problems for the rest of his life. Jacob’s heart was broken by the deception his own sons would perpetrate on him when they sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Cleverness, deceit, and crafty schemes may offer a temporary ticket to victory, power, and “the good life.” But such schemes have consequences that cause lasting pain and punishment.

But that’s not the end of the story. We see Jacob rise above his own earlier mistakes. Jacob never loses his cleverness or his desire to succeed, but he learns how to “cheat the cheater”– he becomes so successful and hard working that Laban can’t fault Jacob for having larger flocks and becoming rich. Jacob could rightfully show that he had not stolen any of his uncle’s flocks, and he made Laban rich, too. Jacob’s cleverness was not the problem– it was how he had used it; with lies and deception against his father and brother. Later in life, he uses the same cleverness to appease his brother, provide for his family, and establish his own growing dynasty.

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And, at the end of his life, Jacob had blessings for each of his sons. Even though he had “favorites”, he made sure each son knew that he was loved and blessed by both his earthly and heavenly father. God also confirmed this by giving each “son” an inheritance among the burgeoning nation of Israel when they returned to the land of promise after their time in Egypt.

What caused this change? Some might say that Jacob “learned his lesson” (and he did!) at the hands of his uncle and with the passage of time. Some might say he matured with the responsibilities of fatherhood and his career. But the Bible gives us one other important factor– Jacob encountered God. Jacob even wrestled with God. But God cannot be cheated. God cannot be outwitted or tricked. God cannot be grabbed by the heel and tripped up by any scheme of man. Yet God blesses even the cheater. God loves even the liar. God chooses even the thief. God’s love and grace are greater by far than any birthright or blessing we can “grab” for ourselves. God doesn’t bless us because we are clever, and certainly not because we lie or cheat. But he gives us intelligence, cleverness, and, if we ask for it, the wisdom to know how to use our gifts in ways that please him and help others.

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We can take refuge in the “God of Jacob”, because even in our sin, God wants to rescue us from ourselves and give us a better way.

Hannah and Her Rival

Hannah is a Bible heroine. Her story is an inspiration to many women who suffer, whether from infertility, depression, or being misunderstood. Hannah is a popular girl’s name.
Peninnah, on the other hand, is a name you rarely hear today. No one wants to name their child after a bully, and a rival to a Biblical matriarch.

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As we read through the story in 1 Samuel, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+1&version=NIV it seems hard enough that Hannah is barren. Especially as it is revealed that God is responsible for her condition. It seems unfair and harsh. But her trouble doesn’t end there. She has a rival–Elkanah’s other wife– who provokes, irritates, and taunts her, making her cry and keeping her in a state of anguish and stress. Peninnah has many children. She has reason to be joyful and proud. Yet she spends her time harassing and hurting Hannah, a woman who is already “beneath” her in society.

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Rivalries tend to bring out the worst in us. Catfights, gossip, taunting, undermining others–books, movies, and even TV series have been built on such pettiness. Whether rivals at school, rivals in romantic relationships, rivals in business, or rivals in our own inflated egos, we allow our world to be narrowed to focus on two people who don’t even exist! We magnify our rival’s faults, twist her motives, and hold grudges over what she “probably” meant when she said “that.” And we justify our overreactions, our grievances, and our tendency to see ourselves as innocent victims.

In the case of Hannah and Peninnah, their world was already small. They were sharing a husband and a household, and likely somewhat isolated from the kind of society with which we are familiar. We live in societies where polygamy is illegal and wives do not (generally) live together. Our families tend to live in single units of husband, wife, and children. However, we also live in a society where fidelity is becoming more rare. Marriages break down, couple break up, and “sharing” a husband, if not a household, is more common than we might admit. Even in divorce and remarriage, we may find a rival in our husband’s ex-wife, or our ex-husband’s new partner, or our partner’s ex-mother-in-law (or our current mother-in-law) or among our step-children.

Elkanah is not an innocent bystander in all this. We don’t know why he has two wives, and the Bible doesn’t say that Elkanah did NOT love Peninnah, but it makes a point of saying that Elkanah DID love Hannah (suggesting that he might have been indifferent to his other wife). Also, the Bible is silent about whether or not Elkanah was aware of the rivalry going on under his roof. He seems totally oblivious and largely absent. Even though he loves Hannah, he doesn’t take care to protect her from Peninnah’s spite.
Once again, we find parallels in our own situations– husbands who feel overwhelmed or blind-sided by the rivalries going on around them; husbands who ignore the firestorms; even men who revel in being the focus of so much attention.

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But, before we label Peninnah the great villain of this story (or turn our anger on Elkanah for letting their rivalry continue), let’s be careful not to rush to judgment. The Bible doesn’t call Peninnah a villain, merely a rival. It says that she provoked Hannah, and taunted her, and even made her cry. However, the story is focused on Hannah. Her reaction to this taunting was to do what so many of us do– to let it heap up on her and push her down into anguish. Hannah doesn’t fight back. But neither does she stand up to her rival. If Peninnah is trying to make Hannah feel worthless and depressed, she succeeds because Hannah allows herself to believe it.

I think there are several key lessons here, and I think God tells us the whole story because there He wants us to see these lessons.

  • Rivalries and conflicts WILL arise in our lives. We shouldn’t pretend otherwise or refuse to deal with them. If you have a rival in your life at this moment, stop and think of ways you can seek peace. Pray, reach out, seek help. This is especially important where children are involved. If you have a rivalry with in-laws, ex-spouses, your children’s step-parents, it WILL impact all your relationships. It will be the way your children learn to relate to others. Whether you are the “bully” or the “middle man” or the “doormat”, you have a responsibility to make an effort to restore harmony. You cannot change the other person, but you can (with God’s help) change the way you build your legacy. And God can change everyone involved.
  • While Hannah did well not to react to Peninnah with her own spite and malice, she let her rival “win” by saying and doing nothing. Jesus teaches us that we are not to ignore those who hate or despise us, but to love them and pray for them. Hannah could have offered to reach out to Peninnah and her children, but she remained isolated. Maybe that was because of Peninnah’s actions or bitterness, but the Bible doesn’t say that Hannah made any effort to end this rivalry, either. She didn’t seek help from her loving husband, and she didn’t seek help from her loving God until she was at the end of her rope.
  • Spite, malice, bitterness, or even self-righteousness (or whatever else may have prompted Peninnah’s nastiness) not only hurts others, it hurts us and blinds us to the opportunity to do good. Peninnah had many children and lived in the same household with Hannah. Instead of taunting her and causing her grief, she could have opened up her heart to allow for a happy, unified family. Peninnah’s hurtful actions are her legacy to every generation that reads this story. She may have been a wonderful mom, a talented women, a real beauty– but she will always be known as the rival who made Hannah miserable. Our actions, even in our own household, have eternal consequences. Small acts of pettiness and spite can follow us for the rest of our lives, destroying our reputations, and blotting out all our “good works”.
  • Our abilities, skills, talents, status, or fertility DO NOT define our worth. God closed Hannah’s womb– he never closed His heart toward her. He gave her a husband who loved her and provided for her. He kept his eyes on her until the time was right to bless her in a supernatural way. God had opened Peninnah’s womb, but she kept her heart closed, and bragged about her children as though she alone were responsible for them. God had provided Peninnah with a husband who provided for her and created a family with her. She had children and a secure home, and reason to sacrifice to God with thanksgiving, yet her focus, even during her visit to the tabernacle, stayed on destroying her rival.
  • What makes Hannah a heroine in this story is NOT the way she bears up under bullying. Even though she didn’t get sucked into anger and malice, she fell victim to despair and depression. Hannah’s victory comes ONLY after she turns everything over to God in prayer. Peninnah’s pettiness is crushed by God’s miraculous provision.
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May this be true in our lives, too– That we would turn to God, and replace bitterness, pettiness, pain and rivalry with His joy, fulfillment, and grace.

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