Whom Shall I Fear?

Psalm 27

Of David.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
whom should I dread?
When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh,
my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell.
Though an army deploys against me,
my heart will not be afraid;
though a war breaks out against me,
I will still be confident.
I have asked one thing from the Lord;
it is what I desire:
to dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
gazing on the beauty of the Lord
and seeking him in his temple.
For he will conceal me in his shelter
in the day of adversity;
he will hide me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.
Then my head will be high
above my enemies around me;
I will offer sacrifices in his tent with shouts of joy.
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Lord, hear my voice when I call;
be gracious to me and answer me.
My heart says this about you:
“Seek his face.”
Lord, I will seek your face.
Do not hide your face from me;
do not turn your servant away in anger.
You have been my helper;
do not leave me or abandon me,
God of my salvation.
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord cares for me.
11 Because of my adversaries,
show me your way, Lord,
and lead me on a level path.
12 Do not give me over to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses rise up against me,
breathing violence.
13 I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart be courageous.
Wait for the Lord.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+27&version=CSB
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There are a lot of scary things in our world– war, disaster, taxes, death, violence, injustice, disease, uncertainty, evil, darkness, even supernatural and spiritual darkness–enough to keep us frightened and sleepless every night! And we spend a lot of our time fearing the unknown–worrying about the future; worrying about things that have not happened, and may never happen! We worry about things that matter– the health and well-being of our loved ones, uncertainty about our job or home, crime and civil unrest in our nation or neighborhood, difficult decisions with serious consequences. We worry about things that are less urgent–someone laughing at us, hair loss, dropping a phone call, running out of gas, losing a game or an argument…

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David had some real reasons to be fearful as he wrote Psalm 27–evildoers, enemies, war and armies, false witnesses, and violence. Yet, he found safety and strength in the Lord. We can take comfort in the message of this Psalm–God is faithful. He is strong. He is eternal and unchanging. He is a stronghold we can trust.

But before we get too comfortable, let’s take a closer look. David’s trust is not based on a superficial knowledge about God. David’s trust comes as a result of seeking God’s face and following in “your way” (v. 11). David’s life was proof of God’s strength and protection, because David’s life was filled with fearsome adversaries!

Many generations after David penned this Psalm, the prophet Amos wrote to the people of Israel– people who knew this comforting psalm, but had lost their fear–people who no longer sought the Lord’s protection or His ways.

Amos 5 Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

Listen to this message that I am singing for you, a lament, house of Israel:
She has fallen;
Virgin Israel will never rise again.
She lies abandoned on her land
with no one to raise her up.
For the Lord God says:
The city that marches out a thousand strong
will have only a hundred left,
and the one that marches out a hundred strong
will have only ten left in the house of Israel.

For the Lord says to the house of Israel:
Seek me and live!
Do not seek Bethel
or go to Gilgal
or journey to Beer-sheba,
for Gilgal will certainly go into exile,
and Bethel will come to nothing.
Seek the Lord and live,
or he will spread like fire
throughout the house of Joseph;
it will consume everything
with no one at Bethel to extinguish it.
Those who turn justice into wormwood
also throw righteousness to the ground.
The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns darkness into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who summons the water of the sea
and pours it out over the surface of the earth—
the Lord is his name.
He brings destruction on the strong,
and it falls on the fortress.
10 They hate the one who convicts the guilty
at the city gate,
and they despise the one who speaks with integrity.
11 Therefore, because you trample on the poor
and exact a grain tax from him,
you will never live in the houses of cut stone
you have built;
you will never drink the wine
from the lush vineyards
you have planted.
12 For I know your crimes are many
and your sins innumerable.
They oppress the righteous, take a bribe,
and deprive the poor of justice at the city gates.
13 Therefore, those who have insight will keep silent
at such a time,
for the days are evil.
14 Pursue good and not evil
so that you may live,
and the Lord, the God of Armies,
will be with you
as you have claimed.
15 Hate evil and love good;
establish justice in the city gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of Armies, will be gracious
to the remnant of Joseph.
16 Therefore the Lord, the God of Armies, the Lord, says:
There will be wailing in all the public squares;
they will cry out in anguish in all the streets.
The farmer will be called on to mourn,
and professional mourners to wail.
17 There will be wailing in all the vineyards,
for I will pass among you.
The Lord has spoken.

18 Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
What will the day of the Lord be for you?
It will be darkness and not light.
19 It will be like a man who flees from a lion
only to have a bear confront him.
He goes home and rests his hand against the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
20 Won’t the day of the Lord
be darkness rather than light,
even gloom without any brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise, your feasts!
I can’t stand the stench
of your solemn assemblies.
22 Even if you offer me
your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
I will have no regard
for your fellowship offerings of fattened cattle.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice flow like water,
and righteousness, like an unfailing stream.
25 “House of Israel, was it sacrifices and grain offerings that you presented to me during the forty years in the wilderness? 26 But you have taken up Sakkuth your king and Kaiwan your star god, images you have made for yourselves. 27 So I will send you into exile beyond Damascus.” The Lord, the God of Armies, is his name. He has spoken.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos+5&version=CSB
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The people have an outward confidence– they believe themselves to be under God’s protection and blessing. They offer sacrifices and sing worship songs and revel in their success and peace. But God’s words are frightening and urgent. Those who arrogantly call for the “Day of the Lord,” expecting God to pass judgment on their enemies will find to their shock and horror, that God’s wrath falls on them as well. Their confidence has been misplaced, because it has rested on a false picture of God, and an exaggerated sense of their own righteousness. God warns them that judgment is coming– and even as He does, He issues an invitation– “Seek me and live!” (v. 4– see also v. 6 and v. 14). God has withheld judgment, He has given His people opportunity to follow His way. Instead, they have followed the ways of the very enemies they used to fear! Their feasts and festivals have become nothing but a mockery and an affront to God–the same people who claim to worship Him are perverting justice and oppressing the poor. They cheer for evil and refuse to listen to the truth.

God is a stronghold and a light to banish fear and darkness–but a stronghold or tower cannot protect you if you are wandering alone and unprotected or worse yet, if you are leaving the tower to embrace the enemy in the dark! God doesn’t just want to be a light at the end of the tunnel– He wants to be a light to show us the road right in front of us, and a light to banish the darkness where our enemy hides! When we have a proper “fear” of the Lord– when we recognize His wisdom, strength, and sovereignty– when we seek Him in humility and awe and need, and dwell with Him, we need not fear anyone or anything else. When we make empty boasts about God’s favor and protection while ignoring His ways, we drown out His loving warning and His call to return to safety…we should be afraid– very afraid!

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Father, may I find my confidence only in You. I want to dwell in Your house and seek Your face today and every day. Thank You for being eternally strong, righteous, faithful, and merciful! Thank you for giving us warnings and providing restoration, hope, and salvation. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Have You Any Room?

I had no idea what to write tonight, so I started thumbing through an old hymnal. A song title caught my eye– just a glance, and I turned the page, but it wouldn’t leave my mind. “Have You Any Room for Jesus?” it read. It’s an old hymn; one I don’t know, and have never sung. But there it was, and I had to turn back through the pages and look again. It’s not the sort of song we sing in our modern worship services– it’s an invitational hymn, meant for evangelistic meetings– it has little appeal to those who already consider themselves “saved”, and little appeal to those who see worship as a constant celebration, without any “awkward” conviction, confession, or heart-prodding that might make us sober and thoughtful.

And as I read it, I was struck by the absence. The words are “old-fashioned,” “melodramatic,” “quaint.” They are plaintive and urgent, and they are foreign to our modern churches.

Have you any room for Jesus,
He who bore your load of sin?
As He knocks and asks admission,
Sinner, will you let Him in?

Room for pleasure, room for business–
But for Christ, the Crucified,
Not a place that He can enter
In the heart for which He died?

Room for Jesus, King of Glory!
Hasten now; His Word obey.
Swing the heart’s door widely open;
Bid Him enter while you may
.

Sing to the Lord Hymnal– publisher and copyright unknown

We tend to be very critical of such sentiments–we don’t want to be addressed as “Sinner.” We shy away from the image of Christ knocking at the door, waiting for us to invite Him in. We want the aftermath– Jesus sitting with us in the “room” HE has prepared for us in Heaven. Without the knocking, and the waiting, and the mundane obedience. I say this critically (and after my last post, too!), but I say it with conviction of my own shortcomings in this area.

When I was a young girl, our family had a print hanging on the wall in our house. It was a common sight in many homes, as I recall, the image of Jesus standing at the door of a small house or cottage, and lifting His hand to the knocker. But that print has been criticized– the “Jesus” is “too white.” The door is not “consistent with doors Jesus would have seen in his earthly life.” The entire scenario is inconsistent with the image of Jesus that modern culture presents– Jesus “hanging out” with rough and tumble commoners at the park or marketplace, or marching in the streets seeking justice for the poor and marginalized, or “Super” Jesus riding on the clouds coming to reward the faithful and punish the wicked.

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We don’t preach a gentle Jesus who knocks at the door and “asks admission.” We don’t give altar calls and urge people to “bid Him enter while you may.” We wear Jesus jewelry, and play contemporary Christian music as we drive around in cars with “Christian” messages stuck to the bumper, and boast about all the “amazing” things God has done for US. Jesus is “cool”– He doesn’t have to knock on our door and ask for admission.

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But this is exactly how He came when He was here for His earthly mission. He was born in a stable because there “was no room” (Luke 2:7) in any of the inns at Bethlehem. He had no home of his own; “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). He asked for water from the woman at the well (John 4), and He invited Himself to the home of Zacchaeus (Luke 19: 1-10). And it is Jesus himself who offers the invitation in Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock..” (Revelation 3:20).

Why, then, have so many of us stopped singing songs like this? When did we stop recognizing ourselves and those around us as “sinners” who need to “swing the heart’s door widely open”? And not just once; we should be heeding the call to make “room” in our hearts and lives daily to meet with the One who bore our “load of sin.”

Lord Jesus, may I answer Your gentle knock– may I clear out the boxes of business and packages of pleasures that clutter my daily life and crowd out my time with You. May I invite You in–to talk with You, listen to You, learn from You, and enjoy Your presence every day! And help me make room to invite others to know the peace, fellowship, and salvation that You offer.

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Jacob Meets His Match–Part One

The Biblical patriarch, Jacob, is known for many things– He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, and grandson of Abraham. He was the brother of Esau. He cheated and/or schemed his way into taking both the blessing and birthright that belonged to his older brother. For this, he was sent away to live with his Uncle Laban, and told to choose a wife from among his extended family.

Jacob’s life took a dramatic turn when he left his small (but slightly dysfunctional) family behind to begin this new chapter. Growing up, Jacob had been the quiet one, the one who stayed around the house. This was no longer an option. Jacob faced a long journey, and years of work to establish his own family and career. On the way to Paddan Aram and the house of Laban, Jacob had his first encounter with God– the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder” at the place he would call “Bethel.” There, God confirmed his promise to establish Jacob, increase his family, and bless all people through him. No longer was Jacob a second son with only his wits to help him succeed (or cause trouble)– God had promised to be with him and watch over him wherever he may go! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+28%3A10-22&version=NKJV

With that promise and the hope of finding a welcome, Jacob arrived at the well where his uncles flocks were watered. Jacob would take over the work of herding and watering the many flocks of Laban. He worked for the first month without wages–setting a dangerous pattern. After the first month, Laban “generously” offered to pay Jacob, and even let Jacob set the terms! Jacob demanded no monetary wages; he wanted only to marry his beautiful cousin, Rachel, with whom he was deeply in love.

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Seven years pass– Jacob has worked for almost nothing but the food he has eaten, and the promise of marriage with the daughter of Laban. And in a scene that seems strangely familiar, Jacob is presented with a feast, and his promised blessing– his wife. But Laban tricks him, substituting one daughter for another. Instead of Rachel, Jacob is bound to her sister, Leah.

When Jacob confronts his new father-in-law, he is given an excuse– tradition says the older daughter must be married first. Laban had seven years to explain this to Jacob, seven years to “break the bad news”, seven years to offer Jacob an alternative. Yet Laban chose to deceive his nephew and use his love for Rachel to get seven years of cheap labor. Worse, he chose to string Jacob (and Rachel) along for another seven years. The Bible gives us a clue as to one ulterior motive of Laban– Leah had “weak” or “delicate” eyes. It is possible that she had been rejected by other men or deemed ineligible for marriage. Without a prospective husband, Leah will be dependent on her father for life. But married to Jacob, Leah becomes one less responsibility for Laban. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+29%3A14-30&version=NIV

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Laban gambles his daughters’ fate on Jacob’s character. Jacob could have cast Leah aside easily and forced her to return to her father’s house a ruined woman. He could have treated her as a servant, rather than a wife– he could have beaten her or “given” her to someone else. And Jacob could have decided Rachel was not worth another seven years of labor, or that he could not trust Laban to keep his word. He could have walked away. He could have taken his anger and frustration out on Leah or on the flocks. He could have returned to his father and started another family quarrel.

But this Jacob is not the same as the one who left Canaan. He serves another seven years, marries Rachel, and then works yet another six years for flocks to call his own. All the time working for a man who is greedy, deceitful, capricious, unjust, selfish, and oppressive. He doesn’t complain, doesn’t rebel, and doesn’t cheat, lie, sabotage or steal from this horrible boss and indifferent father-in-law. Instead, he shows that he has been transformed from the young Jacob who caused so much trouble for his brother and father back home.

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May we choose to submit today to the God of Jacob, and remember that His promise to Jacob extends to all who trust Him– He will not leave us; He will see us and be with us wherever we go!

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.

Jacob, (the other) Son of Isaac

Jacob is a multi-faceted Biblical character; he is full of flaws and makes bad life choices, yet God blesses him and chooses him over his brother to be one of the patriarchs of his chosen people. In fact, the nation of Israel takes its name from the new name God chooses to give to Jacob. So it is helpful to study Jacob’s life. We can learn a lot from his interactions with God and others.

Today, I want to look at Jacob’s (sometimes) dysfunctional home life. We think of the patriarchs as having blessed lives and few, if any, flaws. But God’s blessings are not earned. They are a free gift, freely given to imperfect people. Jacob’s father, Isaac, was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. But Isaac’s home life was not blissful. Isaac was taunted and resented by his older brother, Ishmael, leading to Ishmael being exiled. And he had several younger brothers who were sent away as they grew older (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+21%3A8-20&version=NIV and https://biblia.com/bible/Genesis25.1-6) He was devastated by the death of his mother, Sarah. And, while he was much-loved, and the son of promise, he was also indulged, isolated, and coddled. He was the “winner” among all his brothers.

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As for Jacob’s mother, Rebecca– her family history was dominated by a cunning and dishonest older brother (more about him in a future post!) She was given a choice to leave her family and become Isaac’s wife (almost unheard of freedom for a woman at that time, and certainly not her brother’s idea!) She was a good wife to Isaac and was a great comfort to him in his grief after the death of his mother, Sarah. But when she became pregnant, she soon realized that something was happening inside her womb– something beyond her ability to understand; something that would test her (and Isaac) to their limit.

God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. And he promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to do things for God “their way,” when they got impatient and fearful. Isaac’s birth was confirmation that God’s blessings would come “His” way, and not through human efforts. Isaac knew all of this, but there was more he would need to learn about how God operates.

In Isaac’s family, God underscored the truth of His character– God blesses those whom he loves. God’s blessings are not earned; they do not come in predictable patterns or for reasons based solely on human logic. God’s favor rests not on the “deserving” but on those he chooses to bless. So Isaac and Rebecca have twin boys. According to human tradition, the eldest son inherits all the property and blessings and becomes the patriarch of the next generation. The younger son serves the elder or else leaves to start his own family. Over the centuries, this patterns has caused wars, as brother fights brother for control over land, rights, crowns, and more.

We have no record of Isaac consulting God over this situation, but Rebecca does– and she gets a surprising answer! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A+19-28&version=NIV
Even in the womb, the boys are fighting, but God tells Rebecca that the oldest will serve the younger! Both boys will become strong nations, but they will be separated, and they will continue to struggle throughout their histories. It is the younger, seemingly weaker underdog who will be God’s choice to continue the line of promise begun with Abraham.

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Even in their names, Jacob “loses” to Esau. Esau is named for his bright red hair, a mark of distinction, and a reason to stand out and be a leader. Jacob is named after his action of grabbing his brother by the heel as they come out of the womb. It is a disparaging name, a constant reminder that he is second, and lesser, and always lagging behind his brother.

Today, as I look at Jacob and Esau, I am reminded that I pray to the God of Jacob. He is the God of the underdog; the God who sees and hears the outcast and the downtrodden; God of the disparaged one; the one who feels left out or left behind, even in his own family– even by his own father. It’s not that Isaac hated Jacob or abused him or denied him. But his affection for his sons was shaped by human traditions and his own preferences. God’s love is pure and unchanging! I am comforted in knowing that when God sees me, He always looks with the eyes of perfect love!

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Hannah and Her God

The story of Hannah is filled with a network of complex relationships– Hannah and her husband, her rival, her spiritual leaders, her son’s foster-parent, and the son she desired and yet gave away. But Hannah’s most complex and important relationship was with her God.

What can we learn by looking at this relationship?

  • Even when we don’t understand it, God has a plan, and it is always bigger than “us.” God closed Hannah’s womb– that was part of His plan. But it was not the end of the plan, or the point of the plan, or a hitch in the plan. Hannah’s barrenness was not a punishment for anything that she had done, but Hannah’s response to it (and the response of all the others) provides us with an example of faith, persistence, and obedience. Hannah didn’t know the end of her own story– she didn’t know that her son would play such an important role in the history of his nation or in the history of God’s ultimate plan of salvation for the human race. Hannah didn’t know her story would be contained in the pages of scriptures to encourage people centuries into the future. How would our response to current circumstances change if we considered that God may be using us them to bless, challenge, or encourage others through our stumbling steps of responding in faith? The results of our faith (or lack of faith) will have an impact far beyond just our immediate lives.
  • God is sovereign. Nothing happened to Hannah outside of God’s sight; nothing was beyond his control; nothing about this story took God by surprise. Hannah, even in her despair and frustration, could trust her all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God.
  • God is more interested in our wholeness than our “happiness.” Our culture (and our selfish nature) tends to focus on our comfort, our accomplishments, and our happiness. When we are not happy, when we are frustrated in our goals, when we are restless or oppressed, we tend to think that God has turned His back on us. But it is often during times of grief, pain, loss, and darkness that we are stretched and reshaped to be stronger and wiser, growing closer to God and others. God doesn’t want us to wallow in despair and self-pity; but He will lead us through the very “valley of the shadow of death.” But, as Hannah experienced, God sees our sorrow, hears our cry, and answers our call.
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  • God is trustworthy and faithful. God knew Hannah’s heart. He knew her longing for a child. In Hannah’s case, He had caused her to be barren for a season, and then He gave her the desire of her heart and much more. But even if He had not given her a child of the womb, God gave her a loving husband, a compassionate (if imperfect) spiritual leader, a rival who could not triumph over her, and most of all, His presence and love.

Hannah’s Prayer

Then Hannah prayed and said:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;

    in the Lord my horn[a] is lifted high.

My mouth boasts over my enemies,

    for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;

    there is no one besides you;

    there is no Rock like our God.

“Do not keep talking so proudly

    or let your mouth speak such arrogance,

for the Lord is a God who knows,

    and by him deeds are weighed.

“The bows of the warriors are broken,

    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

Those who were full hire themselves out for food,

    but those who were hungry are hungry no more.

She who was barren has borne seven children,

    but she who has had many sons pines away.

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;

    he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;

    he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust

    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

he seats them with princes

    and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;

    on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,

    but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;

10     those who oppose the Lord will be broken.

The Most High will thunder from heaven;

    the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

“He will give strength to his king

    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

1 Samuel 2:1-10 (NIV) taken from BibleGateway.com
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Hannah and Her Son

1 Samuel 1:11 New International Version (NIV)
11 And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

http://www.biblegateway.com

Today, we get to the essence of Hannah’s prayer. And it is not a prayer that most of us would pray. Hannah asks for a son to take away her misery and show her God’s favor. But in the same breath, she promises to give her son back to the Lord forever. How many of us would ask for something so rare and precious just to turn around and give it away?

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As I write this, my country, my friends, and even my family are deeply divided over the issue of abortion. Much is being made about a woman’s “right” to decide whether and when she will have a child. “My body, My choice,” is a common cry among the pro-choice crowd, while the other side points fingers and yells, “baby killer” at those women who choose to end their pregnancy. But yelling and chanting don’t change hearts or facts. A woman cannot actually “choose” to become pregnant at will. In Hannah’s case, she was in anguish over her inability to “choose” to become pregnant. In the case of a modern woman, she may be in anguish over not being able to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or avoid unwanted complications resulting from her pregnancy. She may, like Hannah, be in anguish over her inability to conceive or to carry to full term. But in any case, the idea that pregnancy and birth are simply a matter of “choice” is based on a false reality. There is an illusion of “reproductive autonomy” because of modern medicine. We have birth control that makes claims of being “safe and effective”; we have methods to increase fertility, regulate menstruation, reduce the chances of conception, and even stop the fertilization process within a day or two. But no woman can simply “choose” to become pregnant (or stop being pregnant) at will. Women cannot choose the gender of their children; they cannot guarantee the date of birth; they cannot produce a future world leader or athletic prodigy just by force of will. They cannot guarantee their child perfect health, long life, wealth, or happiness. And reproduction among human beings is never “autonomous”!

Hannah’s story seems the antithesis of abortion– here we have a woman begging for a child; she is in anguish over her inability to conceive. And God hears her cry and blesses her with a son.

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But today, I want to look at Hannah in a slightly different light. I think Hannah would have a great deal of compassion for those women who suffer anguish because of their womb– women whose wombs are achingly empty; women whose wombs seem to betray them as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in a miscarriage; women who long for their womb to be home to a little girl, even as they have a house full of much-loved little boys (or vice versa); women whose wombs hold anger and bitterness because they have been the unwilling vessel of abuse, incest, and rape.

Infertility and “unwanted” pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. They are distant cousins–manifestations of a fallen world where none of us control even the circumstances of our own bodies. And it is in this context that Hannah makes an extraordinary vow.

Hannah gives birth to a son– the fulfillment of all her longings. Or is he? Hannah gets to carry him in her womb; she gets to wean him. But then she vows that she will give him up– relinquish all rights to be there when he scrapes his knee or loses his first tooth, when his voice begins to deepen and his hugs require her to stand on tiptoe. What kind of mother is Hannah? She will never have all those stories of the little “mom” moments; no memories of tucking him in after a long day, or watching him climb a tree, or run after his dad. She will never hold his hand on dark stormy nights, or ruffle his hair after it gets a new cut (in fact, she vows he will never GET a haircut).

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There are moms–unsung, living in the shadows– who have made the incredible sacrifice of “giving up” their children. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. Some have given them up for adoption at birth. Some have lost parental rights due to divorce, incarceration, or other life circumstances. Some have had their children stolen or taken from them in tragic circumstances. Hannah was given other children after she gave up Samuel, but she never “got over” the loss of her son. No one ever does.

Which brings me back to the debate about abortion. We do not have “reproductive autonomy.” Our wombs are not just another part of our bodies. They are designed to nurture and prepare for new life. To the extent that they fulfill that design, they bring joy and pain, hope and hurt. In denying that reality and embracing the false promise of “my body, my choice”, we don’t erase the lives lost to abortion– we just bury them. And for the women who are making that choice, we must offer compassion. The pain and anguish they suffer before and after an abortion are every bit as real as that suffered by Hannah in her quest to have a son, only to give him up.

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