Sermon: Machpelah

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Genesis 23. Genesis 23. Genesis is in the Old Testament, the first book of the Bible. If you are in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy, you have gone too far. Genesis 23. As always you are invited to leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together. But before we do, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word, be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s Word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.

Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property so I can bury my dead.”

The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”

Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf, so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”

Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham in the hearing of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of his city. “No, my lord,” he said, “listen to me: I give you the field. I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”

Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron in their hearing, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, listen to me, the field is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighted out for him the price he had named in the hearing of Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.

So Ephron’s field at Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees that are within the borders of the field – was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (that is, at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Briefly, I want us to notice two sets of firsts in this story and then I want to share a little from my heart about all of you. Two sets of firsts, one surrounding Sarah and the other about Machpelah.

1. Mourning

Verses 1 and 2: Sarah lived to be a hundred and twenty-seven years old. She died at Kiriath Arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep over her.

This is the first and only time that the span of a woman’s life is given to us in the Bible and it is the first time any death is mourned over in the Bible. Back in Genesis 5, we get the genealogy of Adam all the way down to Noah. It went something like this: So-and-so lived such-and-such amount of time and had a son, he then lived so many more years, had other sons and daughters, and then he died. Nine times, all men, and ‘then he died.’ But there was no mourning recorded. It is as if after being kicked out of the Garden, death just became normal. It was just a fact of life. We don’t mourn the sun setting, or the winter coming. Death just was the way things worked in this world.

But something changed by the death of Sarah. Abraham draws near to his dead wife Sarah and weeps over her body. Something has changed. God has entered into covenant relationship with Abraham and now death is seen for what it is. It is wrong, it is the enemy, it is an affront to the way things should be. At the bedside of Sarah something changes because the covenant between God and Abraham heightens the stakes.

God has drawn closer to Abraham and Sarah and, in doing so, reveals higher heights and lower lows. Abraham and his offspring can no longer pretend we live in a world where ‘death is a door’ or ‘death is the next great adventure’ or ‘death is like the changing of the seasons,’ instead it is heaven and hell, the mother of God or the Great Harlot, everlasting joy or the eternal lake of fire.

God drawing near to Abraham reveals the heart of the biblical story – we were made for fellowship with God. Sin rips that away and the fruit of sin is death, which cuts us off from the life God has given us. The promise of life, blessing, land, descendants, relationship with God given to Abraham only raises the stakes for what is lost in death.

This is why Christians, of all people, can mourn. We do not mourn as those without hope, for we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, we believe in Jesus Christ raised from the dead who has promised that all who are baptized into his death and believe in his name will be raised up on the last day – we do not mourn as those without hope. Yet our hope can, at times, make the pain sharper so that we, like Abraham, sit and weep beside the bodies of those we love. Christians, of all people, know the gift of life and can see the horror of what is taken in death.

When God draws close to Abraham, Abraham’s mourning increases even as his joy increases. His relationship with God sharpens the pain of death even as it gives him hope that God will overcome it.

Abraham’s mourning of Sarah is instructive for us. In our increasingly post-Christian world, we may find ourselves pushed to minimize our grief in the face of death. Isn’t it the circle of life, the life cycle? Isn’t earth just a small speck in the universe, what does death matter in the scope of the universe? But Christians know that it does. In a world increasingly desensitized to the reality of death, where death has no face, but simply a number on a stat sheet, Christian mourning for the dead, mourning like Abraham, can be a radical witness to the value of life in a world that cheapens it. When we continue to gather at funerals and at bedsides to weep over those who have died, we proclaim with Abraham that the life of Sarah, the life of Gertie, the life of Evelyn, the life of Carrie, the life of this person is a gift from God and that death is the taking of a life so valuable that the Son of God would go to the cross to die for it. When we mourn with Abraham, we proclaim with him the wrongness of death even as we hold fast to the hope found in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The closer God draws to us, often the sharper our hope and the sharper the pain of death. This is the first set of firsts in our passage, Abraham mourns for Sarah.

2. Machpelah

The second set of firsts takes up the bulk of the chapter. Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah. On the surface, this looks like two men haggling over land. Some of you have bought property and tried to negotiate to buy acreage. Perhaps this exchange feels a little familiar.

But for Abraham the cave of Machpelah represents so much more than a little piece of land. God promised Abraham that his descendants would one day occupy the whole land of Canaan. The acquisition of Machpelah is a down payment on that promise.

At the time of Abraham, foreigners were not allowed to purchase land. Even today, as I have learned in our journey to buy a house in Canada, being a foreigner makes purchasing property incredibly complicated. But in the days of Abraham it was not done. Foreigners were not allowed to buy land. Abraham has been living in the land of Canaan for over fifty years, but he is still a foreigner, still not one of them. So he asks if they will bend the rules and sell him some property so he can bury Sarah.

Abraham has to keep repeating that he wants to buy the land because the Hittites, the people living in that land, want to find any way to help Abraham out without doing that. First, they offer to let him use any of the best tombs in the land, free of charge. When Abraham asks to buy a specific piece of land for the full price, instead of selling it, the owner tries to give it to him. But Abraham insists, he must buy it.

After Ephron the Hittite relents, Abraham weights out 400 shekels of silver for the land. Some scholars suggest the Ephron is holding Abraham over a barrel and overcharges him, but it is difficult to know for sure. But Abraham pays the price and gets the land. The end of the chapter feels a bit like something you would find on the desk of a lawyer:

Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighted out for him the price he had named in the hearing of Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.

So Ephron’s field at Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees that are within the borders of the field – was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (that is, at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.

Abraham pays the price and is given the deed to the cave at Machpelah as well as the field in front of it. This is the first time the people of God take possession of a piece of the promised land. It is a down payment, a foretaste, first fruits of the promise God made to Abraham. As Abraham approaches the end of his life, for there will be just one act left, he gets to see a taste of the promise. He won’t live to see Israel march across the Jordan, walk around Jericho or conquer the land. He won’t live to see his descendants sitting under their own fig trees or worshipping in the temple of the LORD. He won’t live to see the generations who would come to the know the LORD in the land, or that the LORD himself would walk across this dusty ground as the man Jesus Christ. Abraham wouldn’t live to see all that, but as he purchased the cave at Machpelah and buried Sarah there, he saw a taste, a down payment, the first fruits of what God would do.

I have been thinking a lot about Machpelah in this last week. In many ways, it represents an end that is just the beginning. It is toward the end for Abraham, but it is just the beginning of what God would do through his people in that land. Pastor Olga and I were originally planning to end this series on Abraham with the next story, but I think it was God’s intention that we end here, at Machpelah.

Today is our Machpelah with you. It is an end. It is the end of our journey as your pastors, the end of the time when we will walk beside you and shepherd you in this land. But, I believe, it is also a beginning, a down payment, the first fruits of all that the LORD will continue to do in and through his people in this land.

Just over five years ago, I sat in an extremely hot gymnasium in Pella, Iowa. Olga and I had just come from painting a few rooms in what would be our new home. We were sitting in General Synod, sweating, having just experienced our first taste of the love and grace of this community, a love and grace that would be showered upon us for the next five years.

As we sat in General Synod one afternoon, they began to play a video about the incredible ministry happening in sections of the RCA. But as they played the video, one clip came up and both fire and ice settled in my belly. As the narrator said ‘dying churches’ there was a picture of our sign ‘Reformed Church of Stout four miles.’ I was so angry I was shaking. It was a good thing I did not have the privilege of the floor because I had four or five fire and brimstone speeches running through my head I wanted to deliver.

‘dying church’? Clearly the makers of this video knew nothing about the Reformed Church of Stout. As angry as I was that day, and as much as I feel it in my body even now as I tell it, it has been one of my greatest joys over the past five years to see the LORD prove that video wrong.

Every day, the LORD has been good to us and every day he has shown that he is not done in this place. The fruit we see now is but a down payment, a foretaste, the first fruits of all that he will do in the future.

Let me share a little bit of what God is doing in this church. From five years ago, our Vacation Bible School attendance is up 33%. Over half the children in our Kids Connection program come from outside this church. We have witnessed six baptisms, two of which were adults; 6 professions of faith; 3 marriages. New families have joined this congregation. Women’s bible study grew so big they had to split into multiple groups. Disciple Groups have been drawing over sixty people from our congregation to gather around the Word. WE events bringing 8 year olds and 80 year olds together around the table learning about God’s covenant with us. Half of our current consistory has never served on consistory before and a quarter of our consistory are women. We have a new janitor, new treasurer, new secretary. We have built a handicap accessible restroom, built a new concession stand, and are beginning the process of tuck pointing on our building that will keep it beautiful for generations to come.

None of this was because of Pastor Olga and I, but because of the LORD and his work. Some of the work of the LORD is far more personal. We have grown. Some quite literally. My own family was a lot smaller when we arrived. We now have 3 kids. Anna, Briley, and Max were three when we met them and Joy was about two feet shorter, but with the same facial expression. But for all of us, you are not the same people we met five years ago. Smeins family – Brent, Kim, Madie, Kerigan, Jack – you are not the same people we met five years ago. The LORD has been at work in you. Vern and Sue – you are not the same people we met five years ago. God has been at work in you. Larry – you are not the same man we met five years ago. God has been at work in you. Jill and Jayne, Dave and Annette, Brad and Sarah, Kenny, Sandy, Roger – all of you are not the same people we met five years ago – the LORD has done great things in you and it is just the beginning of all that he has in store. For the LORD who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in Christ Jesus.

Every day, God has proved that video wrong, because the LORD is at work in the soil of Grundy and Butler county. We have already seen the first fruits of the harvest he promises to bring in.

Today is our Machpelah. It is an ending, but also a beginning. We have loved you and been loved by you. We have been privileged to be your pastors these five years. We have experienced more joy in seeing the LORD work than we could have imagined. We will miss you, but I want to close this, my last sermon as your pastor, with the word of the apostle Paul. This is my charge to you as you follow God into the future harvest he has in store for this people:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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