Dealing with Fear Faithfully

What were the do’s and don’ts in your house when you were growing up? Around our house, the list of “do’s” was pretty standard: brush your teeth, make your bed, clean your room, etc. Those were the things I was repeatedly told to do. But I heard plenty of “don’ts” as well:

  • Don’t talk to strangers. 
  • Don’t disrespect your teachers. 
  • Don’t you raise your voice at me.

One of the most common “don’ts” I heard was, “Don’t say that.” She would overhear me saying something that I shouldn’t — something crude or mean-spirited — and she would say to me, “We. Do. Not. Talk. Like. That!” I don’t know how many times she threatened to wash out my mouth with soap. I guess that got my attention, because as far as I can remember, she never had to follow through on her threat. 

One of the most common “don’ts” in the Bible is do not fear. 

In his book Fearless, Max Lucado points out that there are 125 direct imperatives delivered by Jesus in the Gospels — these are the direct commands, the “do’s and don’ts” of Jesus. Of these 125 commands, the most common one is, “Do not be afraid. Take courage. Fear not.” Jesus says this kind of thing over 20 times in the Gospels. And you find it throughout the Bible, from cover to cover, throughout the Old Testament as well as the New. 

Do not fear. 

But what do you do when you are afraid? What about in times like the present, when there is so much to fear? Does it make me unfaithful if I find myself afraid? Does it make me unfaithful if I’m afraid of COVID-19? Or cancer? Or bankruptcy? Or the future? Or any of a million other things that presently terrorize us? What do you do about all of that

See, we could still meet in our churches and have a big religious pep rally and I could say something like, “The Bible says, ’Thou shalt not fear!’ Therefore we are not afraid!” And that might garner thunderous applause from some people — because some think this whole thing is no big deal, it’s all overblown hysteria. And the implication is easily drawn, the connection that faithful necessarily means fearless

But there are some of us who are legitimately fearful — and no religious pep rally is going to change that. In fact, the pep rally actually works negatively in their lives. The pep rally actually can be a tool of Satan in them, because it merely induces shame. These are good people who don’t want to be fearful, but they find themselves afraid anyway. And so telling them that they shouldn’t be afraid does nothing to allay those fears; it simply deep fries those fears in a layer of guilt and shame.

I have a friend; we’ll call him Vincent. For the first 11 years of his life, Vincent wet the bed. He didn’t mean to wet the bed, but it happened every night. His parents would tell him every night, “Vincent, don’t wet the bed,” and every morning he woke up to a wet bed. Eventually his parents would say, “If you loved us, you wouldn’t do this.” But Vincent couldn’t help it. He said he went to bed every night in fear and he woke up every morning in shame. 

I think Vincent’s experience is similar to what some of my friends are experiencing. They’re fearful — really afraid right now — and the message they’re hearing in some corners is essentially, “If you loved God, you wouldn’t do this.” And they feel shame on top of fear. 

Does it make me unfaithful if I am afraid? 

Absolutely not!

It doesn’t make us unfaithful if we’re afraid. We don’t become bulletproof when we come to the Lord. We’re not made of spiritual Teflon. We have feelings — and fear is a legitimate feeling. There are times in life when we will most definitely be afraid. So it doesn’t make us unfaithful if we’re fearful. 

It makes us unfaithful if we don’t take our fears to the Lord. When we take our fears to God, we find that He is faithful to be present with us in those fears. 
The Gospel writers describe the experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane by using the following words: 

  • He was deeply distressed and troubled. (Mark 14:33)
  • His soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. (Matthew 26:38)
  • And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

But to whatever degree Jesus felt stress and overwhelming sorrow and agony and possibly even fear, He shows us the faithful way to deal with those fears. We take them to God. Jesus prays the ultimate prayer of humility when He says to the Father, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Jesus also perfectly embodies one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, Psalm 23. 

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 

Psalm 23:4

We serve a God who promises to sit with us in our fears, to join us right there in the darkest points of our lives, the valleys of deepest darkness. In these moments, we come to know the abiding presence of God. How can David say, I will fear no evil? Because he has learned that thou art with me.

But what if I don’t feel as if God is present? The reality of God’s presence is not bound by our feelings. He is there, no matter what. 

  • God chose to make Himself known most fully in an act of death — the cruel execution of Jesus, executed by the state as a felon, even though He had done no wrong. 
  • And Jesus quotes from Psalm 22 as He hangs there — My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — as a way of identifying with us when we don’t feel God’s presence. And yet, God was present — Jesus is God in the flesh right there, dying on our behalf. 

What I’m trying to say today can be summarized this way: 

  • Does fear control my faith? 
  • Or does my faith control my fears? 

Taking precaution is not the same thing as acting in fear. God tells that one of the most important things we can do is to love Him with all of our minds. That doesn’t just mean Bible study — it means using our rational function to the best of our ability to make the best decisions possible. 

Loving God with all of our minds also means that we fall back on what we know. We can’t control the circumstances of our lives, but we can control what we know. 

Three things to remember when fear is at its strongest:   

  1. God is with us.
    • Jesus — the Scriptures refer to him as Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
    • He came to earth to be God “in the flesh.” God with us and God among us.
    • In John 1, it says that Jesus put on flesh and became one of us. John says He does this in order to be light shining in the darkness. 
  1. God goes before us. 
  • God leads His people — He goes before us. 
  • In the book of Exodus, God led His people through a pillar of cloud by day, fire by night. No matter the circumstances — day or night, good or bad — His presence was always with His people.  
  • God goes before us in times of wilderness just as surely as He goes before us as we enter the Promised Land. 
  • Whether times or good or bad, we can count on the presence of the God who goes before us. 
  1. God is on our side. 
    • This is the best news of all. God is for us; He is on our side. 
    • Romans 8:31, What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 

We also need a way of reminding ourselves of what we believe when we find ourselves dealing with fear. Here’s what I do — I pray. We can’t control the circumstances of life, but we can control what we pray. 

That’s why I’m such an advocate for breath prayers — quick, regular reminders of God’s power and what He has done. The prayers in the Bible are filled with some of the same phrases over and over again — I’m thinking of the classic line, “Give thanks to the Lord; for He is good. His love endures forever.” I’ve found that repeating some of these lines from Scripture can be a source of strength when I’m fearful. 

Here’s one example: Psalm 94:19, When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. I’ve started praying this when I feel fear beginning to creep in. I’ll shorten it to something like: “In my anxiety, console me with your joy.” The more I say that, I can feel the anxiety decrease, and I can feel God consoling me with His joyous Good News. 

Other times, I simply pray, “Jesus Christ is my peace.” When I feel uneasy or when things seem to be spinning out of control in my life, I come back to this bedrock truth: “Jesus Christ is my peace.” That’s taken directly from the prophet Micah and the apostle Paul. But this prayer helps to remind me that even during times of chaos, I serve the One who commands the winds and the waves. Even the chaotic power of Death could not defeat King Jesus! He is our peace — the One who can calm our fears. 

Psalm 27:1The LORD is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life — whom shall I dread? 

It’s not as if we somehow become bulletproof when we come to know the Lord. We still have to deal with fears. But with Jesus as our Lord, we have One upon whom we can place our fears. He faithfully joins us in the midst of our fears and brings light and salvation. 

Posted in Devotional, Faith, God, Gospel, Kingdom Values, No Fear, Scripture | 1 Comment

The Antidote to Contempt: Thoughts on the National Prayer Breakfast

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering in Washington D.C. hosted by members of Congress. It was a wonderful experience and I was grateful to receive the invitation. I was especially encouraged by the bipartisanship the event seemed to foster, as both Democrats and Republicans took the stage to read Scripture and pray together. But the highlight of the event for me was the keynote address delivered by Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, author, and Harvard professor. Brooks delivered a stirring monologue about our present culture of contempt and the ways in which it permeates our political discourse. This crisis of contempt and polarization, Brooks says, is tearing our society apart. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed. 

Brooks defined contempt with a quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” For decades, psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman has been touting contempt as the kiss of death for married couples. Contempt can be measured both verbally and non-verbally: interruptions, biting sarcasm, constant criticism, and eye-rolling are some of the usual suspects. When interrupting, sarcasm, criticism, and eye-rolling become common at home, you probably want to call a marriage counselor. But when they take place in the political arena, we televise the whole thing and call it a presidential debate.

Brooks noted that contempt has reached a toxic level in our culture. We seem to have lost the ability to disagree well, content to simply retreat into our our respective ideological camps which function quite effectively as echo chambers of like-mindedness. And because we don’t spend very much time among people with whom we disagree, it becomes all too easy to label those individuals as “evil” or “stupid.” Or worse. 

I was fully tracking with Brooks as he delivered his address. Like most Americans, I bear a few scars resulting from fractious political conversations with friends over the years. And like most Americans, I can point to several relationship casualties, friendships that ultimately could not stand the freight of our political differences. And like most Americans, this grieves me. 

I found myself thinking, “What does the way forward look like?” And as Brooks delivered his speech, I expected him to advocate for greater tolerance for one another. We basically live in the golden age of tolerance; it is hailed as one of our highest cultural ideals. But shockingly, Brooks said tolerance is not the answer. The problem of contempt can only be solved one way: through love. Brooks said, “Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew didn’t say tolerate your enemies, he said love your enemies.” 

The way forward isn’t greater tolerance or civility. 

The way forward is love

The way forward isn’t disagreeing less. 

The way forward is disagreeing better

The antidote to contempt — according to Brooks but, more importantly, according to Jesus — is to love one’s enemies. What I loved about Brooks’ speech was his desire to maintain the relevancy of the words of Jesus, even amid a political climate such as ours. All too often, we rush to easy reductionism when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. “You can’t act that way in the real world,” we’ll say when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. We reduce the clear teaching of Jesus to the level of religious aphorism, as if whatever “spiritual” meaning we find there has no translation into tangible action. “Loving your enemies doesn’t work in the real world.” 

Father, forgive us for presuming that we understand reality in a way that Jesus does not.

Father, forgive us for presuming that we understand reality in a way that Jesus does not. 

I appreciated Brooks reminding us that if Jesus is truly Lord as we claim, then His words are resonant with relevance today. If Jesus is truly the Lord that we believe Him to be, then He is the one with the proper view of reality, not me. His call to love my enemies comes to bear precisely in the midst of fractious, contemptuous contexts such as our current moment. To paraphrase the old adage: If He isn’t Lord of this moment, then He isn’t Lord at all. 

In the weeks since the National Prayer Breakfast, I have tried to be more aware of the dangers of contempt, especially among followers of Jesus. It would be a misnomer to identify political contempt in this country without also naming the spiritual analogue. I’ve been forced to examine my own heart for any traces of contempt, any temptation to treat another as if they were worthless. I have to fight the urge to retreat into my own ideological bunker, even among my sisters and brothers in Christ. And I’ve been reminded of something Jesus said a long time ago: that the way forward isn’t tolerance or civility, but love. 

This week, we experienced some conflict in the church I serve. As a career churchman, I can say this conflict was of the standard issue, low level variety, but it was conflict nonetheless. And for the sake of full disclosure, I was simply an ancillary figure in the whole episode. But even from my vantage point in this conflict, I witnessed the power of disagreeing better in real time, and it was beautiful. Those who were offended voiced their concerns without accusation. The offender went directly to the individuals who were hurt and asked their forgiveness. Reconciliation flourished. Feelings were hurt, yes, but reactions were godly. The entire episode was handled with grace and truth, a reminder of the One who perfectly embodies both of these qualities. 

As always, love is the way forward, the antidote to contempt. 

Posted in Books, Culture, Devotional, God, Gospel, Jesus, Kingdom Values, Love Others, Politics, Scripture, Social Issues, Theology | 2 Comments

The Gospel According to Genesis: When We Wrestle

In our study of Genesis, we have talked about a God who creates; a God who faithfully keeps His promises; a God who sees us, even when we feel overlooked. We have looked at the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. We’re now ready to move ahead in the story to the twin sons of Isaac and his wife Rebekah. These two sons — Esau and Jacob — are as different as night and day. 

Esau was the firstborn and the Bible says that he came out red and hairy, kind of like Elmo I guess. At their birth, the younger brother, Jacob, was clinging to the heel of his older brother. In fact, his name is a take on the Hebrew word for “heel.” It also has the connotation of deception and shadiness. And Jacob will truly live up to his name as a “heel grabber” who can’t be trusted, right up until the moment he receives a new name and a new identity. 

When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 

Genesis 25:27-28

At this point in the biblical story, we come across a disturbing pattern of parents playing favorites with their children. Esau is a “man’s man” who likes to hunt and fish; we might picture him wearing camouflage and sporting a Duck Dynasty beard. And Isaac favors his oldest son because he was an expert marksman and Dad liked to eat the food Esau provides. But Jacob is quieter and he stays inside — some believe this means he was a scholar. He certainly comes across as more conniving than Esau. The differences between Esau and Jacob are like the differences between Mufasa and Scar or the differences between Sonny Corleone and Michael. Esau is the big, strong athlete of the family whereas Jacob is the academic. And these differences seem to divide their parents: Isaac favors Esau while Rebekah loved Jacob. 

And as you might imagine, all of this created something of a rivalry between these two brothers.  

One day, Esau comes back to camp after a long day of hunting and, understandably, he’s hungry. I guess the hunt didn’t go so well that day. He smells some stew Jacob is cooking — red stew, according to the Bible — and he tells his little brother to fix him a bowl. Jacob says, “Sure, you can have a bowl of stew…in exchange for your birthright.” 

In the ancient world, the oldest son received extra blessing among the children. He was understood to be the one to carry forward the family name; he would inherit the lion’s share of the family estate. As the firstborn, Esau possessed this special status. Remember, God had made promises to bless the entire world through the line of Abraham. This blessing was passed through Abraham to his son, Isaac; and from Isaac to his firstborn, Esau. 

If you were Jacob, would you resent the fact that only a few seconds separated you from this blessing? Would you resent your older brother for being the apple of your father’s eye? Every time someone called Jacob’s name, they were essentially saying, “Hey, heel grabber.” That means every time someone called his name, Jacob would be reminded of the fact that he was always in second place next to his brother, always subservient to Esau, always the one “grabbing the heel” of the one ahead of him in line. 
So when the opportunity arises, Jacob wrestles the birthright away from his older brother. The Bible says that Esau despised his birthright — meaning he treated this great blessing as if it were nothing at all. He was a slave to his desires. So he trades away something of great value for something as fleeting as a bowl of stew. And Esau’s story is a reminder to us of the dangers of being slaves to our desires. 

How many times are we tempted to do the same thing? To forfeit something sacred and special for something fleeting and temporal? I imagine this is a regular temptation for many of us. 

Jacob was not content with duping his brother; he goes on to take advantage of his blind father as well. With his mother’s help, Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. These kinds of blessings were very important in the biblical story. Because they were essentially prayers addressed to God, they were viewed as helping to shape the future of those who were blessed. Can you think of anything more despicable than taking advantage of someone’s disability for your own personal gain? Yet that’s exactly what Jacob does. 

When Esau discovers this, he is enraged; the Bible says he hated Jacob and made plans to kill him. And so Jacob, fearful for his life, goes off to the land of his mother where he lives for many years. 

And the years go by: Esau and Jacob marry and have children of their own. Jacob does well in the land of his mother, building up his flocks and accruing great wealth. And in those days, the angel of the LORD appeared to Jacob in a dream and told him to return home. 

And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good.’ …. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children.”

Genesis 32:9-11

Here we find Jacob wrestling with his past. He has been away for many years and he worries about how Esau will receive him when he returns. Is he still upset? Has my brother forgiven me? Or does Esau still want to take my life? Jacob’s servants tell him that Esau is coming out to meet Jacob…and he is bringing 400 men with him. Scholars say this was a standard number for a raiding party or a military regiment in the ancient world. Basically, Esau is riding out to meet Jacob and apparently he’s bringing an army. And the Bible says that Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. 

And we know what this is like. We all have those things in our past that cause us shame. Maybe it’s someone you once wronged. Maybe, like Jacob, you deceived someone or took advantage of them. You hurt them by betraying their trust and now you’d just as soon avoid them for fear of how they might receive you. Maybe it’s even progressed to the point of Jacob and Esau’s relationship — to the point where you worry that they might want to inflict harm upon you in retaliation for the way you once hurt them. 
Every one of us is familiar with this feeling of fear and distress over the things we’ve done or said. 

And to my way of thinking, this is further evidence that the Bible is a word from God rather than man. Because the biblical story does not shy away from the areas of our lives that bring us shame. In fact, the biblical story almost always goes directly to those places of great pain and difficulty, to demonstrate God’s ability to reconcile and redeem. Even in the darkness of Jacob’s guilt and shame, God is at work. 

Jacob asks God to deliver him from the mistakes of his past. And then he has an encounter that radically alters the course of his life. 

The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.When the man sawthat he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”And he said to him, “What is your name?”And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob sends his family and his flocks and all of his possessions ahead of him to meet Esau. Maybe Jacob thinks the sight of his wives and children will cause Esau’s anger to relent; maybe he’s simply seeking to protect them by essentially saying, “If it’s me you want, fine. But please don’t hurt my family.” Either way, Jacob finds himself all alone in the wilderness in the middle of the night, awaiting his reckoning with his estranged brother. 

And in the night, a man wrestles with him. Of course, by the end of the story, we learn that this is no mere man. Jacob himself seems to think he has encountered the living God in the middle of the night. Some believe that this might well be the angel of the LORD again, a pre-incarnate form of God the Son — and that’s what I’m inclined to believe, although none of that is specified here in the story. 

But the story IS clear that Jacob wrestles with this mysterious being all night long. 
My oldest son wrestled for his high school team this year and I learned a lot about wrestling as a sport. Prior to Joshua joining the team, my only point of reference for wrestling was the WWF. I learned all about the points, the referee’s hand signals, what constitutes a takedown and a pin. I also learned that each round is two minutes long…and when you’re in the ring one-on-one, those are two of the longest minutes of your life. Two minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but when the time runs out and the referee blows his whistle, the wrestlers go to their corners exhausted. 

And yet this story gives us the impression that Jacob is able to wrestle this divine being for most of the night. Jacob may be a swindler and a deceiver, but he’s also tenacious. He hangs in there no matter what. As day breaks, Jacob’s opponent reaches out and touches his hip — and Jacob’s hip is immediately dislocated. This figure is clearly more powerful than Jacob. He says, “Let me go,” but Jacob refuses. Just as he refused to let go of his brother’s heel at his birth, he refuses to release his opponent here, even with a dislocated hip. He says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

And here we get to the heart of the matter. More than anything else, Jacob desires a true sense of blessing. Jacob thought the good life would be found if he could just get his brother’s birthright, but he doesn’t appear to be any more content after acquiring it all those years ago. So in a sense, Jacob is wrestling with unmet expectations. He got what he wanted and found it to be lacking

Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever worked so hard for something that it was your total focus — and then once you finally achieved it, it felt sort of hollow? Have you ever found yourself saying, “Is this it?” 

Similarly, Jacob probably thought, “If I could just get Dad’s approval, then my life will be complete.” I wonder if Jacob ever received any affirmation from his father or if he was constantly overlooked because of Isaac’s love for Esau. So when Jacob deceives his father and receives the blessing, he finally achieves what has been elusive his entire life: status. He’s officially recognized as the legal head of the family. And yet, this doesn’t seem to satisfy him either. For all of his striving and grappling and wrestling, it seems that Jacob still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. And so he finds himself all alone with a heart full of regret and shame. 

And that’s when God shows up. 

Jacob’s story bears witness to the God who shows up when we least expect it — the God who shows up in the darkness, in the cold and lonely night when we are racked with shame and guilt. He shows up when we can see no way forward. He shows up here for Jacob just as he showed up for his grandfather, Abraham and his grandmother, Sarah. Surely Jacob had heard the stories growing up: 

  • How God had promised his grandparents a child…but He waited until Grandpa was 100 years old to deliver that gift. 
  • How God had then called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise…but He waited until the very last moment to stay Abraham’s hand and deliver Isaac. 

But at some level, those were just stories for Jacob — just like at some level, those are just stories for us. It didn’t do for Jacob to simply hear about what God did for all of these other people. What Jacob was looking for was an encounter with the living God Himself. That is what our souls most deeply desire. As Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” It is that encounter with the living God that made all the difference for Jacob — and for us as well. 

God shows up in the darkness of Jacob’s shame. And He shows up to bless. 

If you find yourself in the darkness today — alone, racked with shame, fearful and distressed — take heart. For these often seem to be the conditions God waits for before He acts. God Himself says as much when He asks Abraham and Sarah, Is anything too hard for the LORD? So many of these Genesis stories prove the same point: that God often chooses to wait until there is no other possibility…THEN He chooses to act. Because our God is the God of the extraordinary. 

God gives Jacob a new identity — He names him “Israel,” meaning “he strives with God” or “he wrestles with God.” The tenacity Jacob has demonstrated his entire life is finally directed properly — directed toward God. God is willing to work with this flawed man because he refuses to let go. 

But then we are forced to realize something else. Jacob is not the only tenacious one here. God likewise has refused to let go of Jacob. Through it all, God has been tenaciously and fiercely clinging to this heel grabber and the shame-filled deceiver — just as I believe He is tenaciously and fiercely clinging to you and to me. 

In this, Jacob must realize that he had ALWAYS been blessed. God never let go of him. 
Jacob limps away from his encounter with God — which is a bit mysterious. Did he ever heal or was this injury permanent? We simply don’t know. But we do know this much: you cannot encounter the living God without being changed. And from this moment forward, Jacob is a changed man. He is now Israel, the namesake of the people of God. 

As a postscript, Jacob returns home and finds that his brother Esau has had a change of heart. Their reunion is one of the sweeter moments in Jacob’s life. The one who wrestles is finally at peace. 

Posted in Devotional, Disappointment, Faith, God, Gospel, Jesus, Scripture, Theology | Leave a comment

The Gospel According to Genesis: When God Provides

Today in our series, The Gospel According to Genesis, we reach one of the most difficult stories in the Bible: the story found in Genesis 22. In Judaism, it is known as “The Akedah” — “The Binding of Isaac.” But this challenging passage is also one of the most important stories in the entire Bible. It is one of the primary foreshadowings of what God will do through Jesus. Let’s look at God’s Word from Genesis 22. 

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

Genesis 22:1-2

The Bible says that God “tested” Abraham here. There is a sense in which God is seeking to refine Abraham’s faith — more on that in just a minute. Abraham lived with God’s promise for many years — the promise that one day, God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. And as we talked about last week, God fulfilled this promise when Abraham was 100 years old. But now, years later, God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. 

And this is difficult for us to hear. Our modern sensibilities are immediately offended. We think, “What is God up to in this story? Why does He make such a heart-rending request?” And we must remind ourselves that this is only a test. If we’re aware of the ending, we know that God does NOT actually require Isaac’s life. But that only prompts us to ask again, “What is going on here?”

We come up against an ugly reality of the ancient world: child sacrifice was common in many religious traditions of the Ancient Near East. And that is an important detail. I believe God’s test of Abraham is actually intended to reveal an important aspect of God’s character: namely, the He is NOT the kind of God who requires child sacrifice. In that regard, the Akedah is as much a test of God’s character as it is a test of Abraham’s faith.

At this point in the biblical story, we are introduced to a new word: the word “love.” God says, Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… This is the first time the word “love” occurs in the Bible, as a description of what the father feels for the son. That’s an interesting detail. 

With this test, God is refining Abraham’s faith. God asks Abraham to choose between the Giver and His gifts. James 1:17, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. God is a Giver; but this test is about choosing the Giver over the gifts. And this is a thought worthy of our consideration. 

Do I love God for who He is or simply for what He gives me?

Do I love the Giver more than the gifts?

In my life, I have experienced a sense of peace in my life that comes from the LORD. But I can’t love the peace that comes from God more than God Himself. To do so would be to make an idol out of God’s good gift.

This is the question we all must answer: Will I love the LORD with all of my heart, all of my soul, all of my mind, and all of my strength? 

God tells Abraham to go to the land of Moriah, promising to give him further specifics pertaining to the mountain God has selected for the sacrifice. That lets us know that there is more to this episode than what we have recorded here. Now we look at Abraham’s response: 

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 

Genesis 22:3-8

The little details in these verses are so telling. V3, “Abraham rose early in the morning.” His obedience was immediate. God gives Abraham three simple imperatives: take, go, and sacrifice. And Abraham immediately obeyed God’s call. Immediate obedience is the best obedience. 

We notice that the words “father” and “son” dominate this passage of Scripture, occurring a total of twelve times in Genesis 22. As we read this story, we’re repeatedly reminded of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac — but all of this points to an even deeper father / son connection. 

Another important detail is found in v4, On the third day. The area God specified for this sacrifice to occur was a three day journey. When we’re reading the Bible and we come across something happening on the third day — that should grab our attention. So on the third day, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac will go over there and worship and come again to you. This is the first time the word “worship” is used in Scripture. Of course, Abraham knows that this worship will involve a tremendous sacrifice. Worship and sacrifice are intrinsically linked — as we were just reminded as Ron led our time around the table this morning. 

Abraham takes the wood for the offering and he lays it on his son. Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice. That’s yet another fascinating detail that foreshadows something far greater. 

When Isaac asks about the lamb, Abraham replies: God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. Hebrew scholars note that this phrase can be taken two different ways. Abraham may be saying, God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. But since there is no punctuation in Hebrew, some argue that the phrase may also be interpreted: God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering: my son.

Either way, the point is still the same: Abraham is trusting that God will provide. Now we reach the climax of the story: 

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide,” as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” 

Genesis 22:9-14

This story is so hard. I think this is one of the greatest proofs that the Bible is the Word of God and not the invention of man, because we would surely edit this story — or we’d choose to leave it out altogether. There are so many things that trouble us about this episode. But all we can do this morning is to acknowledge the discomfort this story provokes as evidence that it is truly a word to us from God. 

Abraham builds an altar and prepares to offer his son — his lineage and his future. What must have been going through Abraham’s mind? The Genesis account doesn’t give us those details. But the writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. In choosing the Giver over the gift, Abraham trusts that somehow, God would find a way to be faithful to him. 

The biblical story bears witness that, even when it seems impossible, God always finds a way.

We might also ask what was going through Isaac’s mind. And we don’t have those details either, at least not stated explicitly. We don’t know Isaac’s precise age here. He is clearly old enough to carry a significant amount of wood for this sacrifice. Scholars believe Isaac could be a young teenager at the time of this story; perhaps even in his 20s or early 30s. There is a wide range of possibilities here. 

The point worth making, though, is that Isaac was likely old enough — and strong enough — to contest being bound if he so desired. Pick a number: say Isaac was 17 years old; that puts Abraham at 117 years old. Who would you take in that fight? Who wins in a footrace back to the servants? As we noted earlier, there is more to this story than what we have recorded here. 

I believe at some point, Abraham took Isaac aside and explained what God had asked. Based on what we read in Hebrews, maybe Abraham even told Isaac about his belief that God could raise the dead. And I believe Isaac acquiesces to the will of the father and agrees to go through with this sacrifice. I believe Isaac says, Your will be done, father.

And I believe this because of what this story represents. All of this took place on Mount Moriah, which eventually became the location for the Jewish temple. That is significant because in one way or another, every sacrifice in the Bible looks back to this event. This isn’t about what Abraham was willing to sacrifice, nor is it about the sacrifices of generations of Israelites at the temple hundreds of years later. The larger point focuses upon what God sacrifices, what God willingly provides on behalf of His people. 
Which leads us back to Isaac’s willingness to comply with the will of the father. Isaac foreshadows another child who would be born years later — another child who was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. And this son, like Isaac, carried wood on his back — this time in the form of a cross, a Roman execution stake. And like Isaac, his will was aligned with the will of the Father. 

One of the more common critiques of Christianity has to do with our view of atonement. The line of reasoning goes something like this: a god who would allow his own son to endure something as horrendous as the cross must be monstrous, not compassionate and loving. And that would be a valid way to look at the cross…if it weren’t for what’s actually recorded in the Bible. Because God’s Story is really clear — what happened to Jesus was not only the will of the Father, but it was the willful choice of Jesus himself. It is absolutely imperative that we follow the Bible’s lead toward a Trinitarian understanding of atonement. That means there is no choice of God the Father that is not also the choice of God the Son or God the Spirit — because they are three in one. God the Son made the willful choice to be obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. The Father doesn’t force anything upon the Son. And that’s why I believe Isaac was compliant with the will of his father. 

When God calls from heaven a final time, Abraham replies with his customary response: Here am I. I’m here, LORD, ready to hear from you yet again. Abraham is praised for his fear of the LORD — which is just another way of saying that Abraham bases his life on God. He has chosen the Giver over the gift. And the Giver provides once more: Abraham turns and sees a ram caught in a thicket. And Abraham offers this sacrifice to the LORD. 

Because of this episode, the Jewish people blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, in celebration of New Year. It’s a reminder that even when things appear to be most bleak, God will provide. God always finds a way. 

The story in Genesis 22 cannot be understood apart from the 100 years of road-tested faith that make up Abraham’s story. And the “binding” of Jesus — Abraham’s most renown descendant — cannot be understood apart from centuries of God’s faithfulness and God’s love. 

Genesis 22 is the first time the word “love” occurs in the Bible, but it only points us to the ultimate understanding of the word — another description of a father and a son. But this time, their love is directed not only toward one another, but toward us. 

John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 

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The Gospel According to Genesis: When We Laugh, Part 2

And this whole story repeats itself in the next chapter. 

And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 

Genesis 18:1

Not long after the events of Genesis 17, Abraham sees three visitors passing through and he rushes to receive them. Hospitality was one of the most important virtues in the ancient world. So Abraham runs to these guests, bows low to the ground in an act of humility, and invites them to receive his hospitality. He runs to the tent and tells Sarah that they have company; then he runs to command a young herdsman to prepare a calf for a great meal. And the Bible says that Abraham joined them under a great shade tree while they ate, ready to tend to their needs. Then the guests ask Abraham a question. 

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” 

Genesis 18:9-10

Over the course of this interaction, it becomes evident that these aren’t ordinary guests. One of them is the LORD himself. The first evidence of this is that the guests call Sarah by her new name. Sarai was known for her beauty, known as the wife of the wealthy Abraham. But the guests know her new name — because one of them is the one who gave her that name. 

And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 

Genesis 18:10

Sarah is in the tent listening and she overhears the LORD when He promises that she will have a son of her own when He returns in a year’s time. And this is Sarah’s response: 

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 

Genesis 18:11-2

Sarah’s response is the same as her husband’s; she laughs! And like Abraham, her laughter is incredulous, even a bit sarcastic. “Ha! Yeah, right! Now that I’m 90 years old, I’m going to have a baby? That’s a good one!” After all these years of disappointment, Sarah is jaded. She can’t even go there, can’t even get her hopes up — so she does the same thing so many of us will do; she armors herself with snarkiness and cynicism. She scoffs and laughs and says, “Yeah, right.”

I wonder how many of us are disillusioned like Sarah. I’ve been there before; bitter and jaded. When that happens, it’s so easy to armor up with snarkiness or sarcasm — we do this to protect ourselves. Cynicism is just someone projecting their own hurt out upon the world. Etymologists tell us that our word “sarcasm” derives from an ancient word which literally means “to tear the flesh off.” Maybe that’s why we talk about snarky comments that “cut” so deeply. The snarkiest person you know is simply covering up their own deep wound. 

And the same thing applies in our relationship with God. When we reach the point of being disillusioned with God, we’re definitely in the danger zone. But the root of our disillusionment is often disappointment. We’ve lost something and we blame God for it. So we mask our disappointment with bitterness and sarcasm. 

When we respond to the promises of God the way Sarah and Abraham responded — with incredulous laughter — “Yeah, right!” — think about how much that must hurt Him. 

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Genesis 18:13-15

The LORD calls Sarah out for her laughter — and this frightens her. And this seems appropriate: it seems we ought to be fearful whenever we laugh in the face of the living God. When she denies this, God corrects her and says, “Oh, no. You definitely laughed.” 

But I’m most struck by something else God says here. When Sarah scoffs, God says, Is anything too hard for the LORD? In response to her jaded, bitter laughter, God asks this question — which is ultimately the question of faith. Do you trust that I am able — that I am capable — that I am mighty to keep my promises? Is anything too difficult for me? Is anything impossible for me? This is the question we all face. Is anything too hard for the LORD? 

Interestingly, there is another way of reading this statement. It can fairly be translated in the way we just read: Is anything too hard for the LORD? But this Hebrew word also means “wonderful” and “extraordinary.” That gives some helpful nuance to God’s question. Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Is anything too extraordinary for the LORD? Is there anything too extraordinary for the God of creation?

This is His question to Sarah — but to us as well: Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? Is anything too extraordinary? Is any situation beyond His power? Is any obstacle great enough to keep Him from achieving His purposes? Is anything too difficult for Him? 

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 

Genesis 21:1-3

Even while we laugh, God remains faithful. He keeps His promise to Abraham and Sarah; He returns to find the old couple holding their son in their arms. Picture Abraham beaming with pride — “Look, Lord. Here he is! My son, Isaac!” Picture Sarah with tears of joy streaming down her cheeks saying, “You’ve given me good reason to laugh now!” We can only imagine Abraham and Sarah’s laughter — not incredulous but joyful. “Who would believe it? The old couple having a baby!” 

I wish I could tell you that it’s as simple as this: just believe in God and you’ll get everything you’ve ever wanted. But that’s just not the way faith works: not for Abraham’s descendants who would spend over 400 years in captivity in Egypt; not for Paul who pleaded with the Lord to remove the thorn from his flesh; and not even for Jesus who cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane. We know that faith isn’t nearly as simple as the health and wealth preachers make it out to be: “just believe and God and you’ll have everything you’ve ever wanted.” 

And furthermore, I think Abraham and Sarah would push back on any simplistic reading of their story. I think they would remind us that theirs was a story 25 years in the making. And as we’ll see next week, it’s a story with another very important chapter. 

But this much we can say: Abraham and Sarah’s experience points us toward a God who waits until there is no other possibility to act. Because our God is the God of the extraordinary. 

Sarah scoffs and asks, “Are you going to bring life out of my old and barren womb?” And God says, “Is there anything too extraordinary for me?”

Elsewhere the Bible tells us of a young unmarried woman — Sarah’s opposite in so many ways. But she too receives the promise of life from God. And Mary asks, perhaps incredulously, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  And God says, “Is there anything too extraordinary for me?”

And when Mary’s child is crucified, the crowd laugh at Him. The Bible records their jaded, incredulous mocking: “He saved others; let Him save Himself.” But He doesn’t save Himself. And after He dies, they put Him in the grave — a place just as devoid of life as the wombs of Sarah and Mary; the 90-year-old and the unmarried virgin. 
And as we stare at that tomb, we might ask — maybe even a bit incredulously — “Are you going to bring life out of death?” And God says, “Haven’t you learned by now? Is there anything too extraordinary for me?” 

Our God is still the God of the extraordinary. 

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The Gospel According to Genesis: When We Laugh, Part 1

Years ago, a friend of mine told me he was thinking about running for public office. I honestly thought he was joking, so when he said this to me, I laughed and said, “Yeah, right.” And then there was that split second in our interaction, just the slightest pause on his part…and I realized that he wasn’t kidding. And I realized that I had hurt him deeply with my incredulous laughter. I tried desperately to salvage the discussion, but the damage was already done. 

We remain friends to this day, but he’s never spoken to me again about his dream of running for office. 

This kind of incredulous laughter — the “Yeah, right” kind of laugh — seems to be commonplace today. We scoff because in a world like ours, it’s harder than ever to distinguish between earnest and sarcastic. Rampant cynicism often leaves us jaded and disillusioned…so we laugh and say, “Yeah, right.” 

And that sort of cynicism can really undermine our faith. How do you think God feels when, after hearing about His promises, we laugh and say, “Yeah, right?” 

As Genesis 17 opens, Abraham is 99 years old. He has been walking with God for many years, living with the promise that someday God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. The Lord appears to him and changes his name from Abram to Abraham, indicating that his circumstances are about to change as well. This is what God says: 

Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

Genesis 17:4-5

The name Abram means, “exalted father” but the name Abraham means, “father of a multitude.” And this is what God promises Abraham — descendants too numerous to count. 

But as we said last week, this promise doesn’t simply impact Abraham; it also concerns his wife, Sarah. And God changes her name as well. 

And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 

Genesis 17:15-16

God changes Sarah’s name because her circumstances are about to change as well. After 24 years, God is finally ready to fulfill His promise to Abraham and Sarah. But look at Abraham’s response: 

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” 

Genesis 17:17-19

When God says He is ready to fulfill His promise, Abraham laughs! And the context shows us that it wasn’t the “I can’t believe it’s finally happening!” kind of laughter — but more of the incredulous, “Yeah, right,” kind of laughter. We can see this because when God tells Abraham what He plans to do through Sarah, Abraham brings up Ishmael. He’s essentially saying, “I think you mean Ishmael, Lord. May he live before you!” And God has to correct Abraham’s faulty assumption here: No, Sarah will bear you a son. 

Abraham laughs because what God says here seems, frankly, impossible. And that seems to be one of the underlying themes of Abraham’s story. It seems as if God decides to wait until there is no other possibility — and that’s when He chooses to act. He’s not going to fulfill His promise on a technicality or a loophole; He’s not going to use a surrogate like Hagar. “No,” God says, “I’m going to use 99-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah.” And God even names this unborn child. And you shall call his name Isaac — which means, “he laughs.” 

God reacts to our incredulous, jaded laughter with a little bit of laughing of his own. “Oh, you think I can’t do this? Just you wait, Abraham. I’ll give you something to laugh about.” 

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The Gospel According to Genesis: A God Who Sees, Part 2

We will return to Abraham and Sarah’s story next week and the way God resolves His promise to them. But before we get to that part of the story, we need to look at another woman who struggles to be seen and heard. This is Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant.

So after Abraham had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” 

“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. 

Genesis 16:3-6

Hagar is little more than a pawn in Sarah’s plan. Sarah views her as a means to an end, as her proxy for providing Abraham a child. In this regard, Sarah doesn’t truly see Hagar. Hagar is simply a servant, a non-person in Sarah’s eyes. There’s irony here: even though Sarah doesn’t feel truly seen, she is simultaneously guilty of not really seeing Hagar, of overlooking her as someone made in the image of God. To Sarah, Hagar is a thing to be used rather than a person to be loved.

Sarah’s plan shows us that one of the most unloving things we can do is use another person for our own purposes. When we don’t see others as fellow image-bearers, we’re liable to use them, to treat them as objects, as non-persons. This is one of the deep dangers of pornography — the objectification of another image bearer, reducing a person to simply an object used for gratification. The same could be said of gossip and slander when we reduce someone to a “thing” to be talked about rather than a person to be treated with dignity. Sarah is guilty of this same kind of reduction of Hagar. She simply uses her. 

But Sarah’s plan backfired…because it actually worked, at least insofar as it provided Abraham with a son. Abraham takes Hagar as his wife, which elevates Hagar’s status considerably. Now she answers not to Sarah but to Abraham. And in a typical case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, the Bible says that Hagar despised Sarah once she became pregnant. In this context, to despise means “to look down upon.” Hagar becomes arrogant: “I have a child and you don’t; I have done what you could not.” And this is Hagar’s great mistake. She vindictively looks down upon the one who never truly saw her. 

And at this point, things spiral quickly: Sarah complains to Abraham about Hagar; Abraham demotes Hagar back to servant status, putting her under Sarah’s charge; and Sarah mistreats Hagar. The word “mistreat” is an interesting one. The deeper meaning here is this: “to degrade.” It is the same word that is used in Exodus to describe the terrible conditions of slavery the Israelites faced in Egypt. Here in Genesis, Sarah mistreats and degrades Hagar, the Egyptian; by the time we reach the Exodus story, the tables will have turned yet again as the Egyptians will mistreat the children of Israel. 
As a result of this mistreatment, Hagar decides to run. And then something remarkable occurred. 

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. 

Genesis 16:7-8

Shur was a place in the wilderness on the way to Egypt. It seems that in her distress, Hagar has decided to return to her homeland. Picture this pregnant woman all alone out in the wilderness trying to make it back to Egypt. She has already traveled many miles and she has many more miles to go before she makes it back home. 

What do you think was going through Hagar’s mind at this point? Her life has taken a dramatic turn because of this plan Sarah concocted. Did anyone ever consider what Hagar wanted? She never asked to be married to Abraham. What if there was someone else — one of Abraham’s herdsman, perhaps — that she hoped to marry? What if she wasn’t ready to be a mother just yet? No one in the whole story seems to show even the slightest interest in what Hagar wanted. She is simply a means to an end. And the minute her circumstances changed, she started dishing it right back to Sarah only to find herself back on the bottom again. 

I wouldn’t blame Hagar if she was asking, “Does anyone truly see me?” I would guess that’s why she chooses to return home, “Maybe back home they’ll see me and hear me.”

And this is where the angel of the LORD finds her. 

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand will be against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” 

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Genesis 16:9-13

The angel of the LORD is an interesting character in the Scriptures. This is the first of 48 references to the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament. The word “angel” simply means “messenger” and it seems that this messenger is often dispatched on special assignments throughout the Old Testament. But there are signs that he is more than simply an angel. This special messenger is often identified with God Himself as we see in this passage. That leads many people to believe that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnate version of God the Son — or the form that Jesus took in the Old Testament, to put it simply. That’s what I believe. This is no mere angel, but a full-fledged member of the Godhead standing before Hagar. 

And the messenger of the LORD calls Hagar by name. This woman who feels as if no one sees her, no one cares for her, no one stands up for her and her well-being — the messenger of the LORD, Jesus himself, calls her by name. 

Hagar the Egyptian has her own experience of the God of Abraham here. The same God who called Abraham now calls Hagar to go back to Sarah and to submit to her. The way forward with God is always the way of submission. But the real question God seems to be asking Hagar is less about submitting to Sarah and more about submitting to Him. God’s question to Hagar is the same question we discussed last week — the controlling question for her, for Abraham, and for all of us today — It’s God’s question: Do you trust me? 

God promises that Hagar will also have numerous descendants — and even though the history of those descendants is somewhat checkered throughout history, that does nothing to negate the fact that God chooses to bless this pregnant woman all alone in the wilderness. And Hagar’s response, at least in this episode, is the correct one. She submits to the will of God. She trusts the One who seeks her out in the wilderness. 
And Hagar comes away with a new awareness: “God sees me.” Even if no one else sees me, God sees me. She names her son Ishmael — “God hears me.” And she gives God a new name: El Roi, “You are the God who sees me.” The God who calls me by name. The God who loves me. 

Maybe today you feel like you’re one of the ones who is easily overlooked. Maybe you’re like Hagar: your life has been radically altered by the decisions of someone else. Someone used you, viewed you simply as a means to an end. Maybe you can relate to Hagar the Egyptian — you’ve never felt as if you really had a place among the people of God. Maybe you feel like she feels — you’re a long way from home, alone in the wilderness of loneliness and isolation. You feel unseen, unheard, and unloved. 

Let me ask you this: What would it do for you if you could hear Jesus call you by name? What would it do for you to know that Jesus truly sees you — He doesn’t see you as an object, as something to be used, as a means to an end. But instead, He sees you for who you are. He sees you because you were made in the image and likeness of God. That means He can’t NOT see you — because when He looks at you, He sees a reflection of the divine, a reflection of Himself. 

What if today, in this text, Jesus intends to confront you — to call you by name — to let you know that He sees you?

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