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Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?  

Last held on the 3rd of March 1974 at Daarle

And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

One human life is not the same as another. For one everything runs smoothly. It suits him. It's all easy for him.

There’s a problem sometimes, but still, he does not come into contact with great troubles and worries. And there’s no particular misery that constantly casts a shadow over his life.

Such a person is lucky. And we all want to lead such a smooth and trouble-free life. But that’s not for everyone.

After all, how many people are there, certainly in our midst, who have to say that throughout almost their entire lives, the dark clouds of misfortune and sadness never completely disappear, and the joyful sun of happiness never shines fully! They have to say that they seldomly can walk upright and proud on their life path, but they usually drag themselves along with difficulty and stoop under a burden.

They carry their cross. Sometimes it weighs more heavily on them than other times. But the hope that they one day will get rid of it completely has been dashed in their minds. They no longer believe in that.

Now that suffering may have arisen through no fault of their own. It can be the pain of loneliness when you are early widowed. Sometimes it’s as if you’ve become quite used to it, but then suddenly, you feel the pain of the lack again, due to a certain event. No, this suffering will never really go away.

Another person is confronted with a disease. With a weak spot in the body. Rheumatism, walking difficulties, bad eyesight, deafness. You name it.

The doctor says you have to learn to live with it. Sometimes it’s not so bad, but there are also times when it’s bitterly disappointing. When you are in pain, or when you want to do things you no longer can because of your disability.

But some people carry their cross in their lives in a different way. And maybe their cross is much heavier. Something also has broken with them but through their own fault. They made a mistake, and it now dominates their entire existence. It casts a shadow over everything. It haunts them again and again.

For example, you have fathered an illegitimate child. It’s as if that child has been blaming you for the rest of your life. You gave it that shame.

There is a quarrel in your family. With a deep gorge that has arisen as a result. You were biased yourself. You were a big part of it, maybe had all the fault. That’s why blood relatives don’t want to see you. People are always missed on a birthday. Then the wound will hurt again.

There’s the awful fact that you once secretly cheated on your husband or wife. Your conscience weighs heavily. You can’t look the other person in the eye anymore. There's a fear that they will find out and don’t forgive you. You want to confess, to come clean, but you don’t have the courage.

We can supplement these examples with many others. And the people who bear such a cross are often overlooked. One cannot pity them. After all, it’s their own fault. They shouldn’t have made that mistake.

Yet they often have a difficult existence. Their lives are constantly tarnished and soured. By self-reproach and regret. If only I had never done it, but things done don’t change. By feelings of shame. Everyone looks down at me, of course. I’m a failure in society. I am an inhuman. By feelings of fear. Does my mistake have more bad consequences? You never know what the result will be. Through feelings of guilt. You can look some people never in the eye again. You also have the feeling that you never can settle things with the just and strict God. Yes, one misstep can turn life into a nightmare. It keeps pressing on you like a cross. Some people sometimes go so down spiritually that they have to be hospitalized. And those aren’t the worst.

Because the terrible people don’t care that they have sinned. Have a seared conscience. (1 Tim; 4:2

We know each other so poorly. Perhaps some of you started to think about that one act that also continues to bother him, haunts him, which he has not yet come to terms with. All our sense of sin and feelings of guilt sometimes can focus on one mistake, and we grow stuck in it.

It was the same with Joseph’s brothers. We know the history. They were jealous of him because he walked around in show robes, and his father spoiled him. And they couldn’t bear it that he had dreamed about sheaves. Joseph’s sheaf stood upright, and the brothers’ sheaves surrounded her and bowed low before her. He also had dreamed that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars, his father, mother, and brothers, bowed down to him. Do you sometimes want to be king over us? They had said furiously, and they had grown to hate their brother. And, driven by that hatred, they threw him into a well and later sold him to itinerant merchants. To father Jacob, they showed Joseph’s robe, soaked in the blood of a kid goat to give the impression that a beast of prey had devoured his beloved son.

That was their mistake. And that had major consequences throughout their lives. For would it not have hurt them that they had treated a brother, a very close relative, so badly? Would their conscience never have tormented because of that? Wouldn’t it have hurt them if they lied to their parents, and even more so by saying that their beloved son was dead when he wasn’t? Wouldn’t it have bothered them that they caused their parents to be deeply saddened as a result? That must have chilled them to the bone. Even the evilest brother could not bear to watch that. And the grief was bad and long. We read this especially from Jacob, who had lost his favourite child. “He grieved for his son for a long time.” All his sons and daughters did their best to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, saying: “No, in mourning, I will go down to my son in the realm of the dead. “And his father wept for him.” If they themselves preferred to forget their mistake quickly, their father took care that they couldn’t do it but always was reminding them of it.

And later on, it kept reappearing during the journeys they had to make to Egypt. When Simeon had to stay behind on the first journey, they said to each other: ”This is our punishment because we have ignored our brother’s pleadings, although we saw he was terrified. That’s why we now are in misery.” And when they got home, they had to tell their father that they had to take Benjamin with them on the next journey. “You make me childless”, Jacob said. “Joseph is no longer there, Simeon is no longer there, and now you also want to take Benjamin away from me.” And the wound fully was ripped open when Joseph made himself known to them, and they found that he had become viceregent of Egypt. “It’s me, Joseph, is my father still alive?“ His brothers were unable to answer. Terror paralyzed them. Will they not escape the punishment? And when father Jacob died in Egypt, their fear rose again: “If only Joseph would now turn against us and avenge himself for all the misery that we have caused him.” Thus their whole existence has been embittered and tarnished by that one misstep. Guilt and fear are constantly awakened in them. It seems they never get rid of it.

Do you know that too? That accusing conscience? Those feelings of shame and guilt? That recurring pain in the heart? The fear that can arise? Because of that one big mistake that floated threateningly before your eyes all your life? Or a certain series of sins? Because of the realization that we often fail against our fellow human beings and especially against God? That we increase our debt every day? That even our natures have sinful tendencies? Hate, jealousy, pride? As with Joseph’s brothers?

When the Holy Spirit makes us discover our sins, we find that our lives are full of failures and flaws. And then the dark clouds of guilt continue to roll over us threateningly. Then we are stuck.

Evil can mess up much in the world and our personal lives. It’s a spoiler. Sin ruins so much, sometimes an entire life.

We see it clearly with Joseph’s brothers and also with ourselves.

And what will the brothers do when Jacob dies, and their old fear of his revenge resurfaces? The only right thing: they humbly ask for forgiveness. At first, they don’t dare to appear themselves, but they send a message. Later, when they heard Joseph had wept at this news, they took courage and went to him anyway. And Joseph’s answer is: “Don’t be afraid. I can’t take God’s place, can I? You meant evil against me, but God has turned it for good, to effect what now is happening: that a great nation may survive. So don’t be afraid. I myself will take care of you and your children. Thus he comforted them and reassured them.

Joseph received a special grace. He got enlightened eyes from God. For he suddenly manages to explain the whole strange and adventurous path of his life. His dreams, his ill-treatment by his brothers, his journey to Egypt, his slavery to Potiphar, his long captivity and the high position he now occupies, all he now knows how to interpret from God. He has discovered in it the higher sense and the deeper purpose of God. “You have thought evil against me, but God thought it for good.”

God appears to have used the evil deeds of his brothers for his redeeming and saving work. The crime against Joseph now leads to the fact, that the people with whom God made his covenant remains alive so that they are preserved for the future when God will do great things for them and through them to the world. Evil has miraculously turned into good. God has answered positively to man’s negative, the sinful, which results in so many capricious and dark ways in life. That’s the deep secret of God’s love and grace. The great secret of God’s saving dealings with man. It shows his greatness and majesty.

That’s hidden from many. They see nothing of God’s secret dealings. Everything seems to be arbitrariness. But when our eyes are opened by grace, we also see this great mystery. And also, in our own lives. It’s the secret that God uses our evil things for his good intentions. Then we find out with Joseph. Indeed, it will not be granted to every believer that he should receive such a clear insight into his life and discover God’s guidance so clearly. But even if it remains hidden from us, we can trust that it’s also true. God can use our evil for his good intentions with us and others.

God didn’t create us as dead dolls, as puppets, but as consciously living people with their responsibility. We’re people who received the freedom and the possibility from him to be active on earth driven by our own free will. And that’s why God lets us see and even bear the consequences of our actions and our sins. That’s why He doesn’t intervene immediately and visibly when we make mistakes. That’s why all those dark and difficult things can end up in our lives. That’s why it all sometimes has such an enigmatic and strange course. At first sight, there is no guidance, but it’s pure arbitrariness. It seems that there’s no one who saving intervenes and that the evil that came from our hands is increasing in a fast and erratic way.

And so we, like the brothers, are faced with the often difficult, sometimes unbearable consequences of our sins. Our lives sometimes take a dark course. And yet we may believe that all this is enclosed by God’s holy will and guidance, even though we don’t see it. He even knows how to use our sins and make them subservient to His plans. He even has something in mind with our erratic and strange way of life. He carries out his good and loving will through it. He thus fulfils his promises to us, despite our sins.

And so may the words of Joseph be fulfilled in our and many others lives: “You have thought evil, but God intended for good.” Thus it appears that God can use that one misstep that destroys an entire life for his salvation, his redemption. That does not relieve us of our responsibility. It’s no excuse for us and a reason to sin. But it does speak of God’s greatness and majesty. Of His great omnipotence, with which He can turn a curse into a blessing, with which He answers sin with grace, with which He enlists evil for His good intentions, and thus destroys the power of the evil one.

Thus, these words of Joseph sometimes can explain our entire dark life history. And they can explain the entire capricious world history.

And so the full light falls on the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ. That we reflect on at this time of the year. And there, the words of Joseph find their fulfilment. As the sons of Jacob did evil to their brother Joseph, we have harmed our brother Jesus. He also came to visit us on behalf of his Father. And He equally was unwelcome. He, too, was hated and despised. Tormented and mistreated. This ‘firstborn among many brothers’ also had to disappear from the face of the earth. And just as Joseph went the hard way of the pit, slavery and prison, so Jesus went the hard way of the suffering, the cross and the death. It also was done to him by men who thought evil against him. And again, it seemed as if God had become powerless. Here too, we are full of riddles and questions. But it also shows again how much God, in His omnipotence and love, uses evil in his service and turns it for good so that it cooperates in God’s plan of redemption instead of working against it. For thus, through this suffering, through this dark way, Jesus bore our guilt. That is the way how God wanted to be reconciled with sinners.

Joseph’s way went through the depths but rose again, even to the point that he became the ruler of a mighty realm. So also, the Lord Jesus Christ arose after his death on the cross and the grave. And all authority was given to him in heaven and on earth by the chief king, his Father. Joseph was enabled in this strange way to preserve God’s people alive, that God may continue his glorious history of salvation with his people and carry out His good plans with them. And so the life of God’s present people completely is depending on the Lord Jesus.

These are curious similarities. It appears here that Scripture is a unity, a deep spiritual unity, and that we’ve to read it from the centre of the gospel, namely the Lord Jesus Christ. In Jesus, it’s fully apparent how we think evil, and God intended it for good. Therefore, go to him to confess your guilt, as the brethren went to Joseph. Bow down before him and tell him what you did wrong in all humility. Present to him that one great misstep you have struggled with all your life and is causing you so much grief and fear. Ask him for the forgiveness of sins.

Really, He does not leave a prayer. He is not vengeful but rather merciful and forgiving. He wants to give you relief and comfort. He wants to take the cross that you bear through your faults. He wants to comfort you in everything and speak to your heart, as Joseph did to his brethren. In this way, we participate in God’s redemption.

Are you going to meet him? Do you dare to take the step? Do you think that’s the best way to get rid of your feelings of guilt, fear, and despair? Then you are on the right track. Jesus wants to save you. He is the true Joseph.

By the way, how nice it turns out to be that Joseph learned fine things from God on that strange road that he had to go. There’s something constructive and good emanating from him here. He does not want to take revenge on his brothers and still punish them. But he wants to help them. If he notices that God uses evil for good, that God has even reacted positively to sins, then he does not want to put himself in God’s place by changing anything about it. Then he does not want to oppose God’s glorious work but rather to serve it by providing food for his brothers and their children.

I hope we, too, have received this wisdom from God through our experiences in life. That we don’t want to judge in place of God those who have wronged us. That we don’t attempt to pay back. And we don’t proudly show how wronged we are and how we feel humiliated. But in all simplicity, we forgive our fellowmen their wrong deeds towards us. Forgiving, reconciling, not imputing evil, as Joseph did to his brothers, and even comforting and encouraging them in the process, that’s the most meaningful deed you can do towards your neighbour.

And that’s how you put yourself in the right relationship with God because then you don’t put yourself in his place. Didn’t God also respond to your sins with grace? And wouldn’t you do that yourself to your fellow man? Out of gratitude for God’s redemption, for the fact that He also wanted to turn evil into good in our lives, we may act so forgiving and conciliatory in our environment. Shall we do that? Perhaps this will also make people open to the gospel and belong to the saved people. The people called by Him, in whom all things, even evil, shall work together for good. Do you belong to them, and do you bring others to them?


Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?   

Last held on the 19th of June at Hattem

Sara's death

In the church, we talk about living, about life with all its sides. So also about dying. Death is simply part of our life, whatever our feelings about it: denial, repression, fear, sadness, despair, sometimes even: a longing for it in extreme physical or psychological distress. It's not good always to talk about death in church. It’s also not good never to talk about it.

We also talk about faith in the church: the Jewish and Christian belief in Israel’s God and Jesus’ Father. That faith began with Abraham. The father of the faithful, as he is called. How would Abraham have viewed life, and this time especially death? Would Abraham have already believed that death doesn’t have the last word and there’s eternal life after that?

The scholars differ. One says that in the Old Testament, you find almost no belief in an afterlife, that at most some of it breaks through in the very youngest writings, written well after the exile. Such a person emphasizes the progress in the knowledge of faith: it’s going from less to more. The other sees evidence throughout the whole Bible that there has always been a belief in eternal life. He emphasizes the constant in the knowledge of faith. God’s children have believed the same through all ages, haven’t they? I think the truth lies in the middle. The people always have believed but saw the same first dimly and later more clearly. It didn’t go from less to more, but from concealment to disclosure.

The glass in our home windows allows us to see reality outside. The glass does not change, and reality does not change, but what we see is strongly dependent on something else: is it dark and foggy, or does the sun shine at a clear sky? In this way, we in faith may view the other side of this life. We may even see it more clearly, because the Easter sun has started to shine, dispelling all darkness and mist. But Abraham and the Israelites of the old covenant already saw it, though still in vague outlines through darkness and mist. Let's look at Abraham. Death seems to be winning: his wife Sarah dies. What then will Abraham do, and what will it show? Does he only see death or something beyond death, too, even if it's vague? Does death have the last word or life according to him?

In any case, life has the first word. Because that’s what it clearly has in our chapter; it’s literally and figuratively verse one. "And Sarah lived a hundred and twenty-seven years. These were the years of Sara’s life." Abraham’s God and in Jesus Christ ours is the God of life. Also of our life here and now. The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that he repent and live. (Ezek. 33:11) It’s as if our text means: do you want to talk about death? Then start talking about living. Because that always comes first with God. Keep life on the throne as a gift from Him. Yes, it's temporary, but still of enormous value. It’s God’s greatest gift to us. He also took it completely seriously. Every year of this is counted, although there are a hundred and twenty-seven. Every day is counted, every deed, every word, every thought. Do we only keep on breathing, or are we really living? With each other, with God, with Jesus? Are we being lived, or are we living ourselves? Make something beautiful out of it. How bad, when death comes, and you've to say: I can’t, because I still have so much to do what I’ve failed to do, so much to catch up on what I’ve postponed. It’s a shame when death comes, and you’ve forgotten to live. Then it always comes too early, even if you live one hundred and twenty-seven years. But what a privilege to be able to say: When death comes, I've been ahead of him in one thing. He will never take that away from me: that I have lived. I very consciously have experienced, done and endured that great gift from God with its heights and depths. And if you're in mourning because a loved one has died, and death has an enormous suction power, threatens to dominate life completely, then God’s Word awakens us here: do not think above all of the death of your beloved, but the life, in which God led you, in which He has worked. That life in which you received so much love, loyalty, and devotion. That life may have ended by death, but it was there. Death cannot erase that. It remains in our thoughts and God’s thoughts. "These were the years of Sara’s life."

"And Sarah died in Kirjath-Arba, that is, Hebron, in the land of Canaan." Her death is mentioned briefly and to the point. It doesn’t get more attention. Not a detailed, dramatic description of Sara’s illness. Did it happen suddenly? Was she physically deteriorating in a gruelling process? Has she had a tough fight? What were her last words? The Bible doesn’t like unhealthy curiosity. No, we don’t ignore the terrible suffering that can be and not at all the comfort it gives when one bears witness to the hope of eternal life. I’ve been through too much as a pastor not to be impressed. But dying is no more interesting than living. And life should also be more witness than dying. I'm amazed at the sober, austere restraint of the Bible on this point. And he died. And she died. It usually says that. That’s all.

But it does apply to everyone. It’s described about Sarah. It will also be mentioned of us someday: and he, she died. We've to prepare for that. No, not by always thinking about death, but by thinking about life and using it well, to the glory of God and the salvation of fellow human beings. To spend it like the slave waiting for his master, girding his loins and burning the lamps, thus active and watchful, arranging and keeping everything in order in the house of life awaiting the coming of the Lord (Luke 12 : 35). Because someday it will happen. "And Sara died."

”And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and weep for her.” The daily life of the men and women then was sharply separated. Sara had her own tent for her and her slaves, and it was taboo for men to walk in there. But now Abraham is breaking that tradition. He goes inside. He has to see his wife and let his tears flow with her. After all, they've shared so much joy and sorrow with each other. They followed so long - even if it was by trial and error - the call of the Lord. Then you have to scream out your emotions, your sadness. That’s no shame. But normal, human. Abraham is not ashamed to weep in a women’s tent, the great patriarch of wealth and honour. Just as the Lord Jesus was not ashamed to weep over the death of his friend Lazarus. We don’t have to pretend to be stronger than we are. Not even men. Strong is the idea that men shouldn’t cry, certainly not in front of women. But Abraham does. It looks so human, pastoral, liberating. “And Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.” Where there was love, there is the pain of lack. There's no other way. Someone else may know it. God knows it. He wants to know that. Don’t bottle it up. Don’t force it. Pour out your heart. Everything has an appointed time. That too.

But then it’s time for something else. There’s so much that one has to arrange in a house of death. Life immediately demands his attention again. “Then Abraham arose and departed from his dead beloved.” He must arrange the funeral. Even quickly, because the deceased usually was buried on the same day.

But Abraham is a stranger in the land of Canaan. He does not own a piece of land there. So he goes to the inhabitants of that region, the Hittites, and asks if he can buy a piece of land from them, where he can bury Sarah, which will be the property of his family forever, an inheritance, a hereditary burial place. Why does he do that? Is his grief not so deep, and is he already doing business again, as unfortunately more often after death, business and financial issues about how much everything should cost and the inheritance get the upper hand? No, Abraham’s actions are determined by his faith. That's his driving force, even now in grief. His faith in God, who said: “To thee and thy seed I will give this land for an everlasting possession.” Abraham, the father of the faithful, here keeps God’s glorious promises in view. Promises of blessing, peace and tranquillity, happiness. Promises of salvation in a land flowing with milk and honey. Despite the death of his wife, Abraham has not forgotten those promises. The great future, promised by the Lord, is not out of his sight now. He continues to hope for it. He clings to it the more in mourning and sorrow. He's sad, but not like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4 : 13). And this hope guides him in his wife’s funeral arrangements. She is to be buried in a piece of land of his own, and so he confesses that he looks forward to the time when all this land shall be the possession of his posterity, and God’s promises gloriously shall be fulfilled. This piece of land must be its collateral. A small piece of realization of God’s promises, which looks forward with hope to the full fulfilment. The first step to the salvation that God has promised.

So death does not have the last word with Abraham, but God’s promises have. He confesses: I do not see how, but it’s sure to me that Sarah, even in her death, still falls within God’s promises and plans of salvation, yes, that she is closer to it than I am. What a good grasp of Abraham.

An example for us. We in sorrow also must not lose our trust in God. We also must not allow the death of loved ones to rob us of the hope of God’s redemption. We also must continue to look beyond death and not give it the last word. Yea, we all the more not, for through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we have received a much clearer view of the eternal life, which the Lord in the future has laid up for his children in the Canaan which is above.

Abraham is an older man, left alone in a foreign land. The world says: there’s no future, no more hope. But Abraham shows that he still has. Do we also? When all goes well, don’t we think of death? And in mourning, do we only think of death? Or do we in prosperity and adversity live in the hope of eternal life? May we believe it and act on it: all things come to an end, even my life here, but not God’s way with me, and not the fulfilment of God’s promises to me. It goes on for eternity. Do we confess it with heart and soul: I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and eternal life? That doesn’t end the mourning, but it does provide rich comfort and support.

Incidentally, Abraham still has to conduct tough negotiations to fulfil his wish. It’s done with courteous words, as Easterners are used to, but don’t be mistaken. For what do the Hittites answer? “Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst.” They gave Abraham a high honorary title: Prince of God. And it wasn’t just out of courtesy. They apparently had respect for him because of how he behaved like a stranger with a strange God in their midst. Obviously, it was not only about the hereafter for him but also about life here and now and good dealings with fellow human beings. One noticed him for his difference, but above all for his correct, dignified and pious behaviour. They find that no less than a regal attitude. “You are a prince of God in our midst.” Can something like that be said of us? Does our way of living as Christian command respect in the world around us? Do people think that we as believers - and as such we are gradually becoming strangers in this time - behave royally, or do they not think highly of us? Isn’t our faith just a belief in a life after death, but is it also a force to renew our life here before the end? Even one that others notice? Enforces respect? Are we princes, kingly children of God, and can that be seen by those who are outside the faith? Perhaps said a bit strangly, but the ‘public relations’ of Church and Christianity is important and is our responsibility.

And that the Hittites’ appreciation for Abraham is genuine is also apparent from their great offer. “Bury your dead in the choice of our burial places. None of us will deny you his burial place to bury your dead.” And yet, behind this generous and honourable offer is a rejection. For in the meantime, they don't comply with Abraham’s request to buy a piece of land from them. That would also mean a huge social revolution: someone who is not of their people and doesn’t share their pagan faith should own a piece of land.

And in fact, it’s still so. Appreciation in the world does not mean full recognition and space of the world for your faith. The world is not so eager to give up ground. Do you ever notice that? People treat you courteously but don’t accept you one hundred per cent. For you don’t fit the pattern anyway. For your Christian views and way of life, people don’t want to sacrifice something or give up their own territory. With all due respect of the modern man to faith, Christianity should remain just a peripheral phenomenon that does not stand in his way. It happened in the Veluwe, a region in the Netherlands. The city council decided by a small majority to open swimming pools and football fields on Sunday. The voters in favour expressed their understanding and appreciation for the Christian principles – strictly reformed principles and ways of life - in soapbox speeches, but yes, one had to accept democratically with the majority. They considered that of the Christians worthy and sporty. A few years later, the political roles were reversed. A council majority voted to close on Sunday. The non-Christians were very upset now and managed to get it done that the interior minister quickly annulled the decision. I’m not saying the strictest Sunday observance is the best. My concern solely is with the world’s intolerance toward the church when it comes to real gain or loss of territory. And so the Hittites thought: respect for a dead person? Naturally, but give up a piece of life? That’s simply not possible.

However, Abraham does not give up. He humbles himself by prostrating before them as a suppliant and asks permission to buy from Ephron the cavern of Machpelah, even if it’s for the total price. Efron now smells profit. For the money there’s a lot to buy in the world. But for a lot of money. First of all, Abraham cannot buy the cavern alone. He must take the entire field in front of the cavern. Efron doesn’t want to fuss with the right of way. All those strange people are always on your land. And he asks an exorbitantly high price, although he says with merchant’s dexterity: what difference does it make between you and me? Complete provinces were bought for four hundred shekels of silver. Thus they knew good use, better said, abuse of Abraham’s desires, aroused by his faith. But Abraham considers it below his dignity to haggle as a good trader in these circumstances. And he also sees it contrary to the due respect for the deceased Sarah. If you, like Abraham, follow the path of faith, and the conviction that life wins over death, then it leads to struggles and sacrifices against the world, which does not just allow God’s salvation to gain a foothold on this earth. Faith often is rowing against the current, meeting resistance, and paying a high price. A servant is no more than his master. If Jesus had to endure so much struggle and adversity, so much suffering, as He walked in His Father’s way in faith and obedience, then certainly those who follow in His footsteps.

But that price is not bad because profit follows, even beyond death. And that struggle is not bad because it's followed by victory, even beyond death. We see it with Sarah. She and her husband have lived with God’s promise, albeit through trial and error. She also had to do with that promise and the hope of God’s future alone. She remained a stranger in the land the Lord had promised to her offspring. Hebrews says: in faith, they all died without receiving the promise. Only from afar they have seen and greeted it. But when Sarah’s living from that the promise has ended, she finds fulfilment in her death. In her grave, she is no longer a stranger in the land of promise but the possessor of it. Precisely in death, when all expectations seem cut off, her hopes become a full reality. She finds peace after her wandering as a stranger. A permanent resting place in the land of Canaan.

The same will be true of the other patriarchal family members, later interred in this tomb: Abraham himself, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, Jacob. And it’s all in black and white. The legality of purchasing that piece of land gets all the emphasis. The money is carefully weighed. The piece of land is accurately described, even with its trees. It happened in the presence of the Hittites, especially all who entered the city’s gate, where the judgment and official acts took place. It happened under the eyes of the competent authority. We would say: at the notary. There was no doubt about it. God’s people had an inalienable piece of land in the Promised Land for the first time. And after her death, Sara is the first to rest in it.

And in that same perspective, we too may bury our dead, yes, even face our own death. God calls his children through death to eternal peace and rest in the land flowing with milk and honey, Canaan above. What has been seen and greeted from afar then becomes a full reality. Sara’s funeral tells us this.

And in particular, the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ tell us this. He is, much more than Sarah, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep ( 1 Cor. 15 : 20) and passed through death to the land of God’s promises. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, that they may rest from their toils and wanderings ( Rev. 14 : 13) upon an eternally inalienable inheritance.

“And Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave of the field of Machpelah, opposite Mamre, which is Hebron.” A sad message? Yes, but no less happy news. Because it’s all happening in the land of Canaan. Image and reference to the eternal Canaan, our allotted inheritance.


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Abraham and Abimelech te Beersheba

Last held on the 3d of October 2004 at Hattem

Peaceful coexistence.

If I've to say in two words what this part of the Bible is about, I choose this: peaceful coexistence. What does that mean? The peaceful coexistence of people who have little in common, who have a different lifestyle. The coexistence of people, who are based on principles of life, which clash with each other. So there is all the fuel available for a fierce conflict, a struggle to the death. But both sides realize that they will suffer considerable damage. So they wisely and for the good of the people choose to make agreements and alliances, where it’s a matter of giving and taking and leaving each other alone.

Likewise, Abraham and Abimelech make a covenant. Indeed, they both have very different principles of life. Abraham serves the Lord, Yahweh. We would say the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. And Abimelech serves the heathen idols. But they make agreements to prevent violent conflicts with many victims and live side by side in peace.

The later collector of all the stories about Abraham, the editor-in-chief, who lived in the time of King David, recognized something of his own time in it. After all, in his time the Philistines dwelt in the land of Abimelech. That’s why he mentioned that after forming the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, the latter returned to the land of the Philistines with his army chief Pichol. And that Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines. But Abraham could not possibly have known the Philistines. Then they, sea peoples, from the island of Crete, had not yet settled on the shores of Israel for a long time. That happened much later, resulting in constant violent clashes between Israel’s judges, such as Samson, with those Philistines. But in David’s reign, after years of conflict, the peoples achieved a certain peaceful coexistence. And that worked in David’s favour. Because of this, he became the king of Israel. The king par excellence, sign and symbol of the true kingship that proceeds from God Himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. The editor-in-chief, reverently collecting the old stories about Abraham, and at the same time living in the middle of his own time, saw a clear connection between them, inspired by the Holy Spirit. History repeats itself. Why? Because essentially, it’s about the ever-continuing history between the children of God and the children of this world. It’s a history of a fierce struggle with many victims on either side or one of peaceful coexistence. Sometimes the battle is unavoidable, and at that moment, it is God’s will, because otherwise his people will be destroyed, and his kingdom cannot come. There are plenty of examples of that struggle in the Bible. But sometimes, the time is more suitable for peaceful coexistence.

What is the time suitable for now? The descendants of Abraham, the current nation of Israel, also struggle with that. Namely when it comes to their attitude towards the Palestinians, essentially the descendants of the Philistines. It’s the same word in their languages. It keeps Israel divided. What do we want? Safety above all else with, if necessary, the fight or the peaceful coexistence with giving and taking, also giving and daring to take risks?

History repeats itself. In this time too. For it’s essentially the ever-lasting relationship between the church and the world. Abraham as the church. Abimelech as the world. There was a considerable time between Abraham and the editor who collected his stories and published them in a beautiful book like Genesis. There’s also a substantial time between the editor and us. But after all, it’s about the same things. How do we as Christians experience the world around us? How does the world see us? And how do we interact with each other? In a victim-making fight or peaceful coexistence?

In our history, Abimelech takes the initiative. He comes to Abraham with his army officer Pichol, and says: “God is with you in all that you do.” So Abimelech sees that God richly blessed Abraham. Abraham’s flock is expanding. So is the number of servants. His wealth and power are increasing. After a long wait, he now also has a son as heir. Isaac. In short, everything is going well for Abraham. He had not chosen the fertile plain as Lot. But he had gone the way of obedience to God and trust in God. And God has not disappointed him in it. The righteous man has prosperity. It’s in the bible so many times. Serving the Lord is rewarded. It’s not always like that. God’s children are also sometimes tested by adversity and, additionally, by seeing how the wicked have success. But that does not alter the fact that you can expect blessings from a faithful adherence to God’s will and promises. Eternal blessings, but often also earthly and temporary blessings. You will notice that God is with you. Also, the world around you will see it. The Lord demonstrates to the world His love and power in the lives of His children. Follow in this world, in your work, in your social contacts, faithfully the way of God and the Lord Jesus. You won’t regret it. You will find that the Lord is with you. Yes, others will notice it too. You gain appreciation, respect, awe, as Abraham got from Abimelech. Men realize that one cannot simply ignore you, as Abimelech could no longer do without Abraham. Have there not been times when the church had a respectable place and significant influence in our Dutch society? And that Christians occupy essential posts in all kinds of areas? It’s not the case anymore. But we must not lose hope that it will ever be like this again. And in the meantime, we must ask ourselves: why is it that churches and Christians have lost that appreciation and influence? Because when God is really with you, the world feels that you know a secret and a power, with which it has to take into account, deeming it wise to get on good terms with it, because otherwise, it might turn against her.

And so Abimelech asks Abraham: “Now, therefore, swear to me here by God, that you shall not deal deceitfully with me. Abimelech does not want to have Abraham as an enemy, who once attacked him with cunning, now that he has thus gained in power. I presume that Abimelech’s past experiences with Abraham and God play a big part in this request. For Abraham had not been fair to Abimelech but had pretended that Sarah was his sister. But Abraham’s God had sternly warned Abimelech in a dream not to take Sarah as his wife. We Christians, too, have a reputation in the world that we are not to be trusted, hypocritical, deceitful, and cowardly, not brave enough to stand up for the truth if that poses risks. How bad is that! We profane the name of God and Christ in this world. In everyday life in our society, let us be so open and honest that all distrust and suspicion disappear. Otherwise, peaceful coexistence of church and world is not possible. We also must be able to be held accountable for our faith by others. You believe, don’t you? Well, honesty, openness, love, faithfulness, wisdom are part of that. Just as Abimelech addresses Abraham on his faith: do swear to me here by God. Today’s government officials can also demand such an oath from us when we give testimony in court or accept political responsibility, a public office. Our faith is thus called upon when we are asked not to act deceitfully in this world. It’s important to take that very seriously. If the world recognizes the power and value of faith, which is the case when he demands an oath of us, we may well realize what sacred things we are dealing with.

On the other hand, behind Abimelech’s request is also the realization that it’s better not to have the God of Abraham against you. Because He has power over the minds and actions of people all over the world. Had He not reached Abimelech through a dream? And had He not frightened him? “You are a child of death because you are about to take another’s wife.” The world seems indifferent to God, but deep in human hearts, there may be far more awe and trepidation at Him than we think. We don’t have a weak God but a strong one. He’s the Lord of the church, but also the world. And He also exercises His dominion there in His own time and way. That’s comfort and encouragement for us, in our living and working in this world as Christians.

And Abimelech further asks: “According to the kindness I’ve shown you, you shall treat me and the land wherein you dwell as a guest”. Abimelech had opened up his land to Abraham, thus giving him hospitality, and now also demands the certainty of peaceful cohabitation in return. And so we are also guests in this world, looking forward to the complete fulfilment of all God’s promises in His Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the promises God first had given to Abraham. And then we may be grateful for the hospitality that this world offers us, even in this time, even though society is becoming more neutral. And the prevailing moral views increasingly clash with Christian morality. Just think of sexual morality, marital morality, the morality about the beginning and end of life, the vision of Sunday, we yet do live here still in great freedom as Christians. We are not prohibited from living our way of life. We are not discriminated against and oppressed. In this world, we can earn our living well, develop ourselves well. It can also be different. For instance: we are ostracized, driven from hearth and home. It’s a fierce war between church and world and not peaceful coexistence. Yes, the Kingdom of God is so at odds with the kingdoms of this world, and there are such opposing principles that it’s actually normal if the world is out for our downfall and death. Just as they also crucified the Lord Jesus and a servant is no more than his master. Then we must appreciate the hospitality and tolerance that the world shows us and answer with what Abimelech dares to ask Abraham. We then give others the space to live the way they want and not make it impossible. We don’t have to agree with their outlook on life and lifestyle. We don’t have to hide our own beliefs and opinions. But we do have to respect the other person and grant his freedom of thought. And we may look for forms and try to make agreements to live together as peacefully as possible on God’s earth. In that regard, Christians should be good citizens. For every fellow citizen, also for immigrants, Muslims and towards the government. I think that the Lord Jesus also stood in life that way. At a specific moment, they asked him a trick question: is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? They provoke Him to express an incendiary opinion. But He says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” He does not want to be a revolutionary, does not want to overthrow the world order by force, but wants to conquer that world for himself with the gentle powers of his Word and Spirit. And in this style of living, we have to imitate Him.

Abimelech also thinks about the future. “Also treat my offspring and my descendants well”, he asks Abraham. All the more so since Abraham now also has a son and, therefore, a future. You don’t close covenants and peace for a while, but you assume mutual faithfulness forever, and you hope that it will be a blessing for posterity. Also, in the world outside Abraham, it’s not always just selfish enjoyment here and now, but people raise children, have their happiness in mind and thus build the future. How much more so we Christians to whom God has promised an extraordinary future. Do we take the necessary measures so that our children will have a share in that future, a much brighter future than the limited one in this world? In their upbringing? In making sure to the best of our ability that the church continues to exist in the world? Or are the children of this world wiser on this point than the children of the Kingdom? (Luc. 16:9)

But we continue. How does Abraham react to Abimelech’s invitation to peaceful coexistence? He responds positively. And Abraham said: ”I swear.” In the same way, we should also be constructive and peace-minded, prepared to make good agreements. However, Abraham does add something to it. 'But Abraham reproached Abimelech for a well of water, which Abimelech’s servants had appropriated, though Abraham had lat that dig.' Such a well is vital. It’s the source of life. In other words: as Christians, we also can claim a place in this world, opportunities to sustain our lives and that of our relatives, opportunities to live as we wish. We may also stand up for our rights. Jesus, too, was silent when there was no point in talking at all, showing that he was above the vile intrigue of the Jewish council, which had hired two false witnesses, but He did not remain silent. For example, when they captured him, He said: “As against a robber you went out with swords and sticks, while I only taught in the temple.” We also may protest if we are being wronged, if things are taken from us that we have built ourselves. When we conclude real peace, everything is discussed, and nothing remains. What one party has done to the other must be pronounced and made right. We as Christians often suffer enough in this world, injustice, oppression, lack of opportunities to live the way we want. That’s part of following the Lord Jesus. That pain has to be suffered. Those sacrifices have to be made. And drawing the sword as Peter did in the garden of Gethsemane is not the good intention, but we may, no, we must defend ourselves courageously with the sword of the word. Sharpen that sword. Stand up for your faith, stand up for the church, stand up for God. Fight for a recognized place of these things even in today’s world. The Lord wants that. Rise and fight the good fight. The struggle also for a rightful place of the church in this world. We don’t have to tolerate it if we are prevented from taking that place.

What is Abimelech’s response? And Abimelech said: ”I do not know who did this. Nor did you tell me. And I didn’t hear it until today either.” In other words: Sorry, I didn’t know; why didn’t you ring the bell sooner? What should we think of that now? Abimelech can mean what he says. But it can also be a diplomatic, even hypocritical manoeuvre.

In short, in the world, it’s not always the same. Some people respect you in your Christianity. They are giving you plenty of space to put your faith into practice. But some do their best to make that impossible. They're taking away from you the sources for it that you have tapped yourself. And the world does accuse the church of hypocrisy. Justly. I don’t retract one bit. Abraham also really was not fair to Abimelech when it came to Sarah. But is it such a pure matter when, the other way round, it comes to the world’s attitude towards the church? Reading what the Bible describes, I would not quite trust Abimelech’s elaborate apologies if I were in Abraham’s shoes. They look suspiciously like excuses. Would he really not have known what his servants were doing? In any case, the world has two faces: the kind face of Abimelech and the cruel face of his servants. And sometimes, the world has the Janus face of both at the same time. So let’s always keep our Christian eyes open.

What is Abraham’s reaction? On the one hand, he makes a covenant with Abimelech and gives him sheep and oxen to confirm it. On the other hand, he keeps seven lambs aside. If Abimelech also accepts it, then that implies the acknowledgement that the well is Abraham’s. Abraham is not greedy, even generous, but he does seek his justice and wants clarity about using the well because the source of life may not later become a source disturbing the peace and of violence. Thus Abraham shows his wisdom, received from God.

And so, the two make a covenant. And the place where that happens is from now on called Beersheba. Because to Hebrew ears that name sounds like: well of the oath. And also as: well of the seven. Abraham also plants a tamarisk tree. This tree functions as a long-lasting reminder. As in many places in the Netherlands, Wilhelmina-trees have been planted. The patriarchs lived there the longest. Abraham, but Isaac also was often there, and Jacob went from there to Egypt. And later, when all Israel was meant, the regular expression was often used: from Dan to Beersheba. The northernmost and southernmost place of the land of promise. As a result of this covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, God’s Kingdom is already descending in a sense. It’s gaining a foothold in this world. Beersheba is a kind of outpost of that Kingdom. And that will continue. Through Israel, as the people and land of God’s promises, and through Jesus Christ, through whom God has given visible shape to His promises of salvation and peace. That’s God’s history of salvation with this earth.

Beersheba was also a prominent place of sacrifice. And Abraham started that. For there, Abraham called on the name of the Lord the Eternal God. It’s to say: he fulfilled the worship there to this God. Thus it’s our task in this world to continue the service to God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And we may also ask the world for freedom for this, freedom of religion. Keep our praises going. Keep our prayers going. Keep the proclamation of the gospel going. Keep the service of the Lord going in churches and homes. Just keep your own identity, philosophy and lifestyle as the people of God and the children of Jesus Christ in this world. So be the glowing torch of God in this dark world. And don’t adapt to the world. Israel often will do that in later times, making alliances with neighbouring nations. It will also serve the idols of those nations. But Abraham does not. He does not take over the gods of Abimelech but calls on the name of the Lord. Let’s keep doing that too. Continue to serve the eternal God faithfully. Always erect glorious signs of life from Him in this world. That’s the way Christ is gaining a foothold in this world. That’s how the world will be won for to Him. And that’s also something the world can never take away from us if it’s right. That we give to God what is God’s. Just as the disciples, despite the persecution by the High Council, could not help but speak of what they had seen and heard, and as Paul exclaimed: Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel (1 Cor. 9:16).

And Abraham sojourned many days as a stranger in the land of the Philistines. We, too, will remain so in this world. Despite the peaceful coexistence: as strangers, visitors. We don’t really belong to this world. We’re focused on another world, on the new heaven and the new earth, to which the Lord Jesus has paved the way. We must not lose that secret of faith. Peaceful coexistence with the world must not mean being completely absorbed in this world, completely losing the alienation of the Christian faith. Because in the end, we have a different life purpose, a different life destiny. “By faith, Abraham dwelt in the land of promise, as in a strange land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were joint heirs of the same promise. For he expected the city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebr. 11 : 9 - 10

O God, we build like displaced people,
we live, and we remain strangers,
destined for higher civil rights.
Will us, O King of the tides,
prepare a home in the city
of which thou layest the foundation. (Dutch Christian Hymn)


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Offer van Izaäk

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669)
Sacrifice of Isaac

Last held on the 31st of October 2004 at Hattem

The sacrifice of Isaac

He knows where Abraham gets the mustard.

That’s a Dutch proverb. We do say it of someone who’s well known somewhere, well versed, and who finds ways to reach his goals. But not many people did ever wonder where this wonderful expression comes from. What has Abraham to do with mustard, the mustard plant or the spicy spread made from mustard seeds making the fries or cheese tastier? In Dutch: “mosterd”. Nothing! We should say: he knows where Abraham gets the bundle of branches. And the very old word for that bundle is in Duth: "mustard". So it's a linguistic corruption. For isn’t it in the history of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac that Abraham himself splits the wood for the burnt offering, and, as they go on together, lays it on his son’s back, and also arranges it on the altar?

It’s a familiar story, but it’s still a strange one, a story that raises many questions for us, with all kinds of sides and hidden layers. But it’s also a beautiful and moving story. At least if we don’t immediately give our aversion all the space. What kind of cruel primitive god is that, who demands human sacrifice? I don’t think we should read it with that attitude. Because already in the introductory sentence, it’s indirectly indicated that God will not let it come that far.

And it’s also immediately indicated, what God is most concerned about. ‘After this, it came to pass that God put Abraham to the test.' The Lord lets Abraham take an exam in faith.

How do you prove that you've sufficient knowledge of a school course? If you successfully pass an exam. And the more difficult the exam you pass, the more you show that you’ve mastered the material.

How do we show that we really and firmly believe? If our faith passed through the trial. It must remain standing. It must be cleansed of all kinds of side issues. Abraham is considered the father of all believers, and in this story, he gets the toughest exam of his life. So if we look at him this morning, we can learn what faith is.

And it’s first and foremost that you're available. God says: “Abraham.” And Abraham says: “Here I am. Later, Isaac says: “My father.” And Abraham says: “Here I am, my son.” Later again, the angel of the Lord cries: “Abraham, Abraham.” And Abraham says again: “Here I am.”

Believing is not just accepting certain truths, holding certain beliefs, or being a member of a particular church. Believing is that you are addressed by God, very personally. That you hear, how God calls you by name, his voice sounds in your heart, he calls upon you. Believing is knowing of a conversation God is always keeping with you. And of a way, He is going with you. And thus open yourself to the Lord, make yourself available: Here I am. You no longer can avoid it, going your own way. You surrender to the Lord, put yourself in his service unconditionally. Your life becomes living for Him. First of all, for God, but also the neighbourhood. Here I am, my son. Just say what’s on your mind. To believe is to love and serve God and your neighbour. Dedicate yourself with all your existence to the glory of God and the salvation of the world. Come out of your corner and participate wholeheartedly in God’s experiment with you. 'Here I am.' We're not perfect. We don’t always have this availability of the true believer. We are sometimes very far from it. Yet. Do you recognize this? Do you feel this is the proper way of faith? Here I am, Lord. Please do what you will with me.

And then God said to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will name you.” What a great sacrifice Abraham must make. The Lord makes it clear that He understands that, He does know what Isaac means to Abraham. He says that very explicitly. But that’s precisely why it’s a hard slap in the face for Abraham. “Your son, your only, whom you love. Why can God ask that? Why can God, who is love, bring people into such impossible tribulations, impose something superhuman like that and then expect us to keep faith in Him and obedience to Him? What God wants from us and asks of us sometimes is so terribly heavy, incomprehensible, and oppressively dark! No, believing is not having the answer to all questions, having a crystal-clear worldview. We know in part. We still see through a mirror in riddles. Also, the riddles of a high, holy God, who walks in secret, whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose ways are higher than our ways. Who sometimes seems like an enemy instead of a friend. “God is great, and we do not understand Him”, says Job. How did Abraham ever understand this command?

And if we don’t believe in blind chance or unshakable fate but in a living God, are we not often faced with a similar riddle to which Abraham stood? And doesn’t that happen, especially when sacrifices are asked of us? Sometimes we have to put many things on the altar in our lives that God asks in return. A father or mother, a man or woman, a son or daughter. Our health and our workforce. Our profession and our good position. Our company. Our homeland, how many refugees are there on earth. The love and help of good friends, who suddenly abandon us for reasons we don’t understand. Or the love of our spouse who has grown cold. The older we get, the more often we have to let go, until finally our lives. Those are very tough exams. Does it make us grumbling, rebellious? Understandable. Are we desperate, despairing? Also, so understandable. Or does that incomprehensible faith float to the surface, with all the storms in our hearts? So that we continue to fear God, like Abraham? So that we become one of will with God? So that we learn to love and trust God above all that is dear to us? So that we recognize that, as Creator, as Lord and King over all, He has more rights than we do in what He takes from us? So that we do not withhold from Him what is dear to us? Because his grace is enough for us? Did that faith come back through the temptations? That’s a mark of true religion.

Abraham, of his own accord, had to give up his son. Believing is also making sacrifices in complete freedom, letting go of things God asks us to do. Abraham had to start with that right away: “Get out of your country, and out of your kindred, and out of your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” On the way God puts us, sometimes much has to be left behind. Think also of the rich young man, or Levi, the tax collector, who had to get rid of the earthly possessions on which they hung. And think of Paul, who had to exchange his spiritual wealth, righteousness, and devotion. He who loves earthly things more than God is not worthy of Him. We are not perfect people. We often don’t succeed in sacrificing a little bit of our money, leisure time, and a few of our vices and weaknesses, contrary to the gospel. We think with reverence of the great ones in the faith, who devoted their whole lives to God, who would do everything for Him, warriors for the truth, like Luther. Fighters for justice, like Martin Luther King. Tireless workers in the service of mercy, such as Albert Schweizer, Mother Theresa. But do you notice that the voluntary sacrifice belongs to believing? That it’s a touchstone of our faith? Do we give something for God, a lot for God? Giving time, giving money, breaking with our favourite sins?

However, do you know what must have been the most difficult thing for Abraham? Isaac was the son of God’s promise, was the visible sign that God richly would bless Abraham and his descendants and make them a blessing to the whole world. Isaac was the collateral of God’s goodness and faithfulness. That only last narrow bridge to the fulfilling God’s promises, that bridge that Abraham had to wait so long for. It’s the bridge that only was built when it humanly was no longer possible. And that bridge now must be broken down. It seems God is making a definitive mark through his own work. It’s incomprehensible. It’s the hardest tribulation of faith.

Isn’t that also the hardest thing for us when what we consider to be signs of God’s love and faithfulness is disappearing? When what we see as heralds of the spring of God’s Kingdom are taken from us? For example, when a church withers? When soldiers’ boots trample the world peace? When our children say goodbye to faith? And when the healing of an illness, which we experienced as an answer to prayer, is not permanent? “Where is God in whom you built and in whom you trusted your cause?” (Dutch hymn, Psalm 42) It’s a tough test for our faith when the Lord takes away from us all kinds of things that gave our faith something visible to hold on to. But it can happen.

So it’s quite a bit what God asks of Abraham and sometimes of us too. And what does Abraham do? “And Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took with him two of his servants, and his son Isaac; he split wood for the burnt offering, and set out, and went to the place which God had named him.” The writer does not dwell on the battle Abraham must have fought in his heart. That’s a secret between God and Abraham, he does not enter. Sober and modest, he sticks to the facts and actions. Without excuses and delay, Abraham obeys God’s strange, harsh command. And this concrete act of obedience pleases God and shows Abraham’s faith. “Abraham, our father, was he not justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So wrote James. Hearing and obeying, hearing and doing, are one in faith. Believing is going and listening to God’s voice, not knowing what comes of it and where you come to, yes, while sometimes it’s entirely in line with the expectation that nothing good will come of it, only suffering, making sacrifices, carrying crosses. Believing is doing deeds that you realize God gives you to do, without the meaning and purpose of those deeds always being transparent. What is the benefit of volunteering in a developing country? It’s a drop in the ocean when you achieve something, and often your work is undone. And yet you go to the place that God shows you. What do you deal with people who have something against you? You’re not breaking through their wall of rejection, are you? And yet you go to the place that God shows you. What are you doing as a pastor at a dying person who no longer responds? Yet you go to the place God shows you. How do you manage to talk about faith with that indifferent acquaintance, who constantly criticizes the church? And yet you go to the place that God directs you.

And so Abraham sets out. It’s further described in a beautiful piece of prose. “When Abraham lifted up his eyes on the third day, he saw that place in the distance.” What was on his mind? The tension is rising. He leaves the servants with the donkey. You have to go alone through this heavy hour. “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go yonder. When we have worshipped, we will return to you.” Words you can’t stop thinking about. Is Abraham merely hiding his purpose from his servants? Or does he believe that God has not shown his true face in this hard commission and continues to cling to a miracle? I think so. For that’s true believing. Always again saying: yet. “You seem harsh and cruel, o Lord, and yet I believe in your love and mercy, and your miracles.”

Abraham puts the wood on Isaac’s shoulder but carries the dangerous objects, the fire and the knife himself. A beautiful description of Abraham’s love and care. Isaac is becoming more and more involved in the story, and it appears that they bear the burden of the sacrifice together. “So they both went together”, it says twice. How wonderful when our children obediently follow the path of faith and don’t give up even on the path of severe trials of faith.

Isaac also asks: ”Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham answered: “God will provide himself with a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” It’s not a direct answer. That’s too much for him to give. It’s an answer, referring to God as the one who will take care of the solution. He leaves the initiative to God. And he confesses that with God, everything is still open, and all things are still possible. He believes in the unbelievable, just as his words to the servants showed. “We will return to you.” And here: “God will provide.” “By faith Abraham, when he was tempted, offered up Isaac, and he that had received the promises was willing to sacrifice his only son. He considered that God was able to raise him even from the dead, and from there, he got him back, so to speak," says the letter to Hebrews. (11:17-1) To believe, against the appearance of the contrary, is to hold on to the fact that God can still give new openings, that He can still provide surprises, that He can provide for all needs, that with Him the wonders are not yet over. To believe is to say: Even if I don’t see it, even if I don’t see through it, God provides and will provide for everything. And you passed the test of faith if you can say so. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. (John 20:29) The ways are always open with God, even if they seem close to our eyes. God will provide it. You can leave it to God. He will not disappoint you in the end. Despite appearances to the contrary, he will not drop his promises; even if there’s nothing left to see with human eyes, God still will see it before Him. So it says literally: "God will see a lamb for a burnt offering before him." He who thus believes in God’s saving and outcome-giving power can make sacrifices. He can let go of what he loves. He can bear that something dear is taken from him. He can do deeds that seem meaningless from a human point of view. He can continue to believe even when all kinds of visible signs of God’s goodness fail him.

And that faith, with which people refuse to settle for the worst, even though it seems God Himself gives the worst, that faith with which it’s said, even in the greatest need: ”The Lord will provide”, that faith also will prevail in the end. Rich blessings rest upon that faith, which has stood firm in the most severe trials and tests. “Do not stretch out your hand to the boy and harm him, for now, I know that you fear, and your son, your only one, had not withheld me." Abraham gets his son back as if from the dead. With its horns tangled in the bushes, a ram takes Isaac’s place. Indeed, God Himself provided the sacrifice. Abraham may receive that ram as a gift from God and a substitute for Isaac. Abraham gives it out of God’s hand. In this sacrifice, man accomplishes nothing. God himself provides what should be on his altar. And He confirms His promises to Abraham. All the nations of the earth will be blessed with his seed. In his trial of our faith, it may seem otherwise, but the Lord will fulfil what he has promised. He swears to himself to assure Abraham.

This history of Abraham’s exam of faith is touching. Also very educational because we discover what faith is. Abraham, the father of the faithful, shows us.

But also a daunting story. Because we usually don’t have such a faith as Abraham. We feel we are far from it.

But then we can look to Jesus. Our great brother in believing. The founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebr. 12:2). From the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, and through whom that family tree became a blessing to the whole world. All kinds of lines of our history lead to him. After all, He has also made Himself entirely available for God and man. “Behold, I come to do thy will, O God, in the scroll it is written of me.” (Ps. 40:8) He has given himself entirely to God and man, sacrificing himself completely for both. He, too, has borne the dark riddles of God’s ways, endured all temptations and trials. He, too, has wrestled with God’s impossible demands in the garden of Gethsemane. He also cried, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ He, too, learned obedience from what He suffered. (Hebr. 5:8) He made the greatest sacrifice possible: that of his own life. He also believed that this was not the last of God’s intentions and that God would save him, even through death. “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” And this faithful surrender, this sacrifice, has atoning and forgiving power for us. It takes away from us the guilt of everything we fall short in faith. The Jews in our story pay more attention to Isaac than to Abraham. It’s called by them: the binding of Isaac. And they believe that there was an atoning power of Isaac’s willingness to sacrifice his life. What a clear line we see towards Jesus, the Messiah.

And on the third day, as He also foretold in faith, Jesus was raised from the dead. It was all well, ended well. And in Him, all God’s blessings are richly fulfilled.

In Him, God also appears to give what He asks of us. He provided the sacrifice by surrendering His Son to death. The Lord gave his Son, his only One, whom he loved. What He saved Abraham, He took upon Himself. For our salvation, to enable forgiveness and atonement for our sins. How wonderful.

Do you know where Solomon later has built the temple? On Mount Moriah. And do you know where later the cross stood? Close to Mount Moria. Many sacrifices have been made in the temple, but they all pointed to that one sufficient sacrifice made on the cross nearby. That particular sacrifice pictured Abraham when he offered his son Isaac and Isaac when he allowed himself to let sacrifice.

Thus, the two go together: Father and Son. The Father lays his Son, and the Son lays Himself on the altar. They care more for people than people could ever do for them. They devote themselves to people more than people can ever devote themselves to them. They show more love to people than people can ever show love to them. They go through a greater depth and suffer more for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of men than men can ever be challenged and can suffer for the sake of their obedience to them.

Therefore I hope you say it: "Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief." "Lord, I want to obey and love You, even when it’s hard and it takes sacrifices, but it will only work if You continue to give me that faith through Word and Spirit." "And thank you, Lord, that in the greatest need, I may still hope for you because you have provided everything." Therefore, I hope, when it comes to saving faith, you all know where Abraham ‘gets the mustard’. Amen.

Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?   

Verdrijving van Hagar en Ismaël

Pieter Lastman ca. 1583 – 1633
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael
oil on panel(48 × 71 cm) — 1612
Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Last held on the 5th of September 2004 at Hattem

Hagar and Ishmael

I once walked near a primary school, where the children had just flown out. A little girl stepped right in front of me. She pulled her cutest face and said: Hi, Mr Mayor!

Growing children are lovely. Each phase has its charm. Babies arouse warm feelings because they still are so delicate and dependent. Toddlers are so funny when you see how they discover the world around them and hear them babbling their first words. It’s nice to see how eager to learn primary school children often are, how they do their best, the tip of the tongue out of the mouth while writing. The tumultuous years of puberty also have their charm. You see them struggling through trial and error in their search for their own identity and life path. And it’s great to talk to the more mature youth on an equal level. Because they’re not yet got stuck, they can open your eyes to what you’ve become somewhat blind to over the years.

Growing children, it’s a blessing to be with them, as grandma and grandpa like my wife and I in recent years. But above all, to experience them up close, and to be part of this process of growing up as a father and mother, by leading that process, guiding it, witnessing it. In any case, I'm very grateful to our dear Lord for my children and grandchildren. Do you too? Gods rules on the creation and maintenance of human life are formidable.

Moreover, it’s not self-evident at all, but it’s a miracle if everything goes according to those rules. Therefore it’s also written about Isaac: "And the child grew up." God had given him to Abraham and Sarah when it was no longer possible. A supernatural miracle. If that’s the life start of Isaac, then nothing can happen to him, can it? And yet it’s mentioned in the bible as an equally wonderful sequel: and the child grew up.

We may think it’s simple. But it wasn’t like that at that time. The infant mortality rate was appallingly high. Thank God, it’s low now. Yet. Children can be victims of a traffic accident. They can die from SIDS. They can get cancer and, because of their young age, a very aggressive one. Or any other illness. Unfortunately, I read in the church bulletin of a previous congregation that a 17-month-old boy had died. He had by me well-known parents and grandparents. One grandfather is an elder in the church, and the other a pastor who has worked there. Fortunately, it’s true of most children what it says of Isaac: the child grew up. But it remains a divine blessing. Blessed, you young people, if you may grow up to adulthood like this. Blessed, you parents, if you can raise children like this. Blessed, you grandparents, if you can have grandchildren. Thank God for it.

“And the child grew up and was weaned.” What does that mean? He no longer received milk from the mother’s breast but had to learn to get used to other food and drink. It happened then around the third year of life. It was the very first step towards independence and adulthood. And it wasn’t easy, because Olvarit (brand of baby food in the Netherlands) wasn’t there yet. Yes, that’s how life works too. In phases, the bond with mother and later also with father becomes increasingly looser and they finally stand on their own two feet. This process is a learning experience for the children themselves, but just as much for the parents. The children must dare to go out into the world, and the parents must let go of their children. Weaning starts with the mother’s breast but continues in other areas as you grow up. It's an exciting but also challenging process. It’s anyway a necessary process. May God give wisdom to young and old so that this process may go well. There may well be frictions, but do they have a positive or negative effect on that process? That’s very important. Think about it, young and old.

“And the child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned.” They slaughtered an animal for the meat of that meal. The wine flows freely on that meal. In short, there's a celebration. The scholars have a beautiful French expression for this. They are the “rites de passage”. So rites, actions, customs, which make it clear that a particular stage in life has been passed. We, too, have these rites. Our birthday. Our graduation party. We close something and make a new start. It’s always a reason to look back with gratitude. “Up to this point, the Lord has helped us.” Hallelujah. Without Him, it would not have come to this. But it’s also a reason to look ahead with confidence: He does not abandon the work of his hands. I will face the future with Him. Let us so gratefully remember our milestones and celebrate our feasts. It’s an excellent way to honour the God of our lives.

But the feast in Abraham’s tents is not without blemish. “Then Sarah saw that the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she bare to Abraham, was mocking.” The text is not simple. Some scholars read an innocent word here: The two children, Ishmael and Isaac, are just playing with each other. But most still think of mocking laughter. A silly joke about weaning? Let it be known: I’m still the oldest, even if you are the birthday boy now? It’s guesswork. In any case, Paul also saw it as something negative, for he writes in Galatians: “He who was begotten in the flesh persecuted him who was begotten in the spirit.” No, things don’t always go well with growing children. Evil has penetrated them too. There’s sometimes teasing, bullying, quarrels, sometimes violent quarrels. Even today, it’s not always hunky-dory in the families.

And one evil often evokes another. When Sara sees this, her old jealousy towards Hagar resurfaces, which she already had when Hagar turned out to be able to give birth to a child, but she couldn’t. Her maternal love and protective instinct take on something harsh, harmful, bigoted against Hagar and Ishmael. Looking ahead to the future, she envisions Ishmael as Abraham’s eldest son running off with the larger inheritance, even though he's only the child of a slave girl. She must prevent that. Yes, it’s very humane in the tents of Abraham, just like in our houses, where it’s not always quiet peace either. We daily need the converting, renewing, and reconciling power of the Lord Jesus, also in our family life. What can be there and remain without those forces between people? Between children, parents, between children and parents. Alienation, anger, hatred, thirst for power, fear. And what harm one can do with mockery, because the one you mock with, especially if he is in a delicate and sensitive age, is humiliated to the depths of the soul and sometimes suffers spiritual traumas through it throughout life. How much harm jealousy can do, fear of being lesser and of falling short! The word devil is in Greek diabolos, which means: the wedge driver. He’s the one who throws himself in between. He knows well how to drive wedges sometimes. To throw oneself between people who were supposed to love each other. Also in families, also in Christian families. No one is too good and too religious for it. It happened in Abraham’s tents. It also can happen in our homes. Perhaps you, unfortunately, you’ve been there. In any case, let it be a comfort for us that God did not make His covenant of love and grace with perfect people, that He did not give His promises of salvation and peace to perfect people, but for sinners like us. That He also holds on to such people in His faithfulness when they’re raising children and wants to give advice in tensions and conflicts and show the right way, as He did to Abraham.

However, we do have our questions about this at first. For Sarah says to Abraham: "Chase that slave-woman and her son away, for the son of this slave-girl shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." Do you hear Sara’s contempt and hatred? That slave-girl, she says. And: her son. She can’t even get the names past her lips. But Abraham has no desire at all to reject them. After all, Ishmael is his physical son. That creates a close bond.

And yet God says to him: “Don’t let it be evil in your eyes to do what Sarah tells you.” What now? Is the Lord as hard and ruthless as Sarah? Is He merciless and unjust? It does look like this. Why doesn’t He call for peace and reconciliation? ‘Folks, lay down the swords, live together lovingly.’ But you know, we must not forget that it wasn’t the will of the Lord, but it was through the unbelieving act of Sarah and Abraham that Hagar had a child by Abraham. It was a situation that didn’t make sense and was contrary to God’s calling and election of Abraham. It was due to a lack of faith in God’s promises and disobedience to his word. It was a human violation of God’s purposes. Now, as the children grow up, the nasty consequences become more and more visible, which could escalate into terrible deeds. And that’s why it must end now. It seems hard but breaking up is the best. Yes, the Lord always points the best way. Although it can be the most difficult.

How should we transfer this to our time? Does the Lord ask us to drive growing children out of the house if they’ve been defiant? No, of course not. But He does ask us to create pure relationships in our families. We must remove everything that infringes on his eternal intentions for us and end the nasty consequences of our disbelief in Him and our disobedience to Him. We must get rid of all kinds of conflict material that has arisen from our sinning. Those who are called and chosen by the Lord to live in a glorious covenant with Him must sometimes take harsh measures, must remove from life things that are contrary to that covenant, that threaten that covenant. We cannot harmoniously combine everything. To give an extreme example: If you’re the owner of a notorious pub or hotel, a gambling house, and become a genuine Christian, then you’ll get rid of those things. Watching certain films cannot be combined with your faith either. I’ve heard of someone who came to faith that he put piles of videos he used to watch over and over again in bags and set them up for the garbage truck.

And such personal choices and actions of faith can also sometimes put the ties of family and ties of friendship under threat. You have to disappoint others, hurt them, sometimes let them go completely. If there’s always conflict material because of a very different faith, philosophy, and lifestyle, if you only make each other unhappy, it’s better to let each other be free. The sending away of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham also has that aspect. It’s not just negative. They thus are freed from slavery. And Abraham also gives them water and bread, enough to travel to a place where they can settle. We can’t always hold each other. Sometimes we have to let go of each other. That hurts. But sometimes, it’s for the best. And then give each other as much as possible.

That does not alter the fact that our sympathy goes much more to poor Hagar and Ishmael than to those hard-hearted Hagar and Abraham. There’s also something of the contrarian nature of God’s election. He doesn’t choose sweet, nice people, people who do so well, people who don’t get stuck in life, but he chooses sinners, who carry the burden, the bad consequences of their sins with them all their lives, even though they know of divine forgiveness. Fortunately, because otherwise, who would be saved?

And that choice also means that God removes everything that stands in the way of the fulfilment of his promises, even if it’s through human suffering and pain. He promised to bless the posterity of Abraham and Sarah. They will be the chosen people. From them will arise the Savior. And Ishmael must not stand in the way of that, which happens when he sets aside Isaac and starts claiming the birthright and the inheritance associated with it for himself. Ultimately, nothing and no one can stop God’s plan of redemption. And that’s, on the one hand, a plan in which Israel, the people sprouted from Abraham and Sarah, plays an exceptional role, which other nations don’t play. That’s why Ishmael must fall out of our story, also in God’s view. But, on the other hand, God’s plan is a plan for the redemption of the whole world, of all nations, through Israel, especially through that one Son of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ, which is why the Lord does not abandon Ishmael in his need.

We will read that clearly in the sequel. Hagar gets lost in the desert. The water is running out. Ishmael threatens to die of thirst. His mother cannot bear that. She puts him under one of the bushes that grow there in the desert, probably some kind of thistle bush with thorns and small leaves, giving just a little shade from the scorching sun. She sits at a distance, as far as the arrow falls, that has been shot from a bow. The place is still visible but from afar. And sitting so at a distance, she raises her voice and weeps. And, so we read directly, God heard the boy’s voice. Our story poses quite a problem for the interpreters. According to Genesis 17, Ishmael was circumcised at 13, a year before Isaac was born. So that Ishmael must have been about 17 years old when he mocked on the feast day of Isaac’s weaning. But we also read that Abraham put the child Ishmael on Hagar’s shoulders with bread and a sack of water and that Hagar threw her child under a bush, giving the impression that Ishmael was not older than a single year. And now we’ve also to ask ourselves who’s weeping and heard by God: the mother or her child. We get the impression that a writer later on two related stories put together without considering it important to make the differences invisible. In any case, the most important thing is that God hears our weeping voices. Weeping voices of parents and children in their distress. In their own need and in their need for the suffering of the other, whom one loves so much. Growing children and caring, nurturing parents. Life doesn’t always go as planned. Bad things can happen there in the desert of a hard existence. We already mentioned a serious illness, a traffic accident. We can think of physical and mental handicaps, psychological problems, educational problems. No, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes tears flow. Sometimes, there is a cry to heaven, a cry in sorrow and great distress. Sometimes the suffering is so much that loved ones can no longer bear it. Yes, life is sometimes at stake.

But know this: God is hearing us. That’s what the name Ishmael means very literally: God hears. The Lord is not deaf. The Lord is not cold and indifferent. But He hears. “He will be the saviour of the poor; He hears their cry for help. He approaches their solitude with royal compassion.” (Ps. 72 in a dutch hymn ) Just cry it out. Loud. For whatever reason. For yourself. For your children. For the horrors in this world. God hears it wherever we are. Amid our woes. Under the thornbushes of our worries, fears, disappointments, sorrows. And the angel of God cried from heaven to Hagar and said to her: “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the boy’s voice where he is. The word “angel” is capitalized in most translations. If in the Old Testament it’s not about one or another angel, but especially about the angel of God, then we see God’s Son in it before He became flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ. In the old covenant, the Angel of God still cried from heaven for salvation, but He came down to the earth for redemption in the new covenant. As the living proof: the Lord hears. The Lord saves. He saves from all distress and death. The Lord is compassionate and gracious, great in mercy. That’s a comfort and encouragement, also for us, in our needs and worries of whatever nature: caring for ourselves, each other, our children. The Lord hears and helps in Jesus Christ. We can rely on that. He will not forsake us in the desert of this life. He does not even leave us before the borders of death. Thanks to Jesus.

That’s good in our Old Testament story, and it’s already a prelude to what is fulfilled by the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. Ishmael must leave God’s chosen family. Ishmael does become a desert dweller, so not an inhabitant of the promised land. And yet the Lord does not write him off. For he is a descendant of Abraham. The Lord saved him miraculously. And he may also be the patriarch of nations. According to Genesis 25, he also had twelve sons by the Egyptian woman whom Hagar had chosen for him, and thus twelve tribes sprang from him. In other words, the Lord does not deal with him so much differently as with Isaac. The Lord will certainly not write him off.

It would go too far to draw all kinds of lines from our story to the current situation in the Middle East. They certainly exist, considering that Ishmael is the patriarch of the northern Arab peoples, who now live in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, including the Palestinians. There still is a wonderful love-hate relationship between Israel and the neighbouring nations, one that has already become visible in our text history. The majority of these northern Arab peoples are Muslims, incidentally a religion related to Judaism and Christianity. But many Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians are Christians, believe in Jesus Christ as God’s saving Angel on earth. So we feel the tension that our story is already full of. God only chooses Israel but for the purpose of his saving love for all nations. He doesn’t write them off, but “count them on the scroll, where he writes the nations, as being incorporated into Israel.” (Ps. 87) In our story, the wall between Jew and Gentile is a wall that God Himself erects in His covenant and election by advising Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, but which He also jumps over by hearing and saving Hagar and Ishmael. And so it’s in the new covenant. Salvation comes from the Jews. Because it’s through that one Jew Jesus Christ. But that salvation is for all nations at the same time. For us too. In that respect, the wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. The Lord hears Israel and Ishmael, and therefore also the Palestinians and therefore also us.

That’s how it is in our story. “And God was with the boy, and he grew up.” Growing children. All over the world. And in our own family. As Isaac: and the child grew and was weaned. Like Ishmael: And God was with the boy, and he grew up. What a privilege to witness, to lead, to guide their growing up. In this way, our own life of faith also grows.

” Hi, Mister Mayor.” “How sweet of you to greet me. But I’m not the mayor. I’m the pastor of the church. Who tells of the Lord Jesus, I said. And, I now add, of his love for growing children. Yes, for everyone. Everywhere in the world. Amen.