Sermon: Holding on to the Promise

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – you have called us and claimed us are your own. You have done this by grace through your Son, Jesus Christ, not because we have done anything to deserve it. Hold us fast, so that we might hold fast to your word of promise, that word fulfilled most completely in our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Good morning. I want to tell you a story – a true story. But before I get there, I need to set the stage. Out of all the families in the world, God chose one – the family of Abraham – to carry the promise and eventually bear the child through which God would redeem this lost and broken world. God promised all this to Abraham – land, descendants, blessing, God would be his God, God would be his shield and protector. But Abraham had no children, no child who could bear the line of promise into the future. So Abraham’s wife Sarah gave him her servant-girl, Hagar, so that Abraham could have a son. That son was Ishmael, but God declared that he was not to be the one, not to be the heir of the promise. God would open Sarah’s womb in her old age and she would have a son, Isaac. God did just as he promised. Forty years later, Sarah died, but Isaac was still without a wife. Last week we heard how Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son and the LORD provided Rebekah. It is just after Rebekah has come and married Isaac that our story picks up in Genesis 25. That’s Genesis 25. As always, you are invited to turn there with me and leave your Bibles open as we read and study God’s word together. Genesis 25, beginning in verse 1. Listen closely for this is the Word of God for the people of God: 

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. After Abraham died God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

These are the descendants of Ishamel, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nabaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, and Kedar, Abdeel, Midsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. (This is the length of Ishmael’s life, one hundred thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died and was gathered to his people.) They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria, he settled down alongside of all his people.

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son; Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren, and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her and she said, “If it is to be like this, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples born of you shall be divided;

the one shall be stronger than the other,

the elder shall serve the younger.”

When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

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

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished.” (Therefore he was called Edom). Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die, of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

It was not entirely planned, but it seems entirely fitting that this morning, on Mother’s Day, our story is filled with mothers and children. They are all over the place. Abraham at the age of 140 takes another wife, Keturah, and has six more children – Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Those kids have kids – Sheba and Dedan, Ashurrim, Letushim, and Leummim; Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. Now that the pressure of the promise is off, now that Isaac is heir to the kingdom and married to Rebekah, Abraham goes on to have a whole other family. Sixteen in all. All the children of Keturah. That’s quite a mother’s day. 

Then we hear of the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by way of Hagar, Sarah’s slave-girl. Ishmael does not carry the promise, he is not heir to the kingdom of Abraham, but God has promised him blessing too. Twelve sons – Nabaioth, Kedar, Abdeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. And this is just the sons. We know from later in the story that Ishmael has daughters as well. These twelves sons become entire tribes, becoming twelve princes from the family of Ishmael. That’s quite a mother’s day.

Now we get to Isaac. We expect the fireworks to go off at this point. After all, Abraham has passed on the promise and the kingdom to Isaac. The promise that God would be his God, that God would be his shield and his very great reward. The promise to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. The promise of the land, that he would become a great nation. The promise that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The promise that his children would be as numerous as the sand on the sea shore and the stars in the sky. All these promises, all that Abraham has, including his flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female servants, donkeys and camels, all of it has been passed down to Isaac, who is to rule over the kingdom and bear the promise that God has given.

So if Abraham in his old age has 6 kids going on 16 and Ishmael who does not carry the promise has 12, what are we going to find with Isaac, the child of promise?

Listen again: These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son; Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren…

Zero. Rebekah was barren and the house felt empty. Twenty years. Twenty years of Rebekah opening birth announcements from her brother-in-law – ‘oh Isaac, Ishmael’s had another boy!’ – while aching inside. Twenty years of watching blessing seem to flow easy and often to others while she watched and waited and ached.

For some of us, a day like today is a reminder of when the pains of childbirth gave way to joy and we held the child in our arms for the first time, of watching first steps, of praying by their bedside, of hearing them take the name of Jesus upon their lips in faith. For some of us, this is a day of joy and rightly so.

For others of us, a day like today is a reminder of all that is not, of all that was not, of all that was and is no more.

Abraham – six more going on sixteen. Ishmael – twelve and daughters to spare. But Rebekah…

Rebekah is not alone. She is not alone in the long wait – twenty years. Not alone in this room, not alone in the history of God’s people. Her mother-in-law Sarah waited for twenty-five years, holding on to the promise of God, while Abraham’s brother Nahor had one child after another. Twelve in all. It seemed those living under the promise had to wait and struggle, while those who did not watched the blessing of children come easy.

Rebekah’s daughters-in-law would struggle with barrenness and cry out to the LORD. The man of Manoah’s wife was barren. Hannah was barren. Elizabeth was barren. Mary, the mother of Jesus, had no possibility of having a child, being a virgin.

The emptiness of womb, the barrenness of the human condition, lies toward the center of the biblical drama. But so too the miracle of God bringing life where none was before. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren, and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived.

This is what Rebekah and Isaac have been waiting for twenty long years. Finally the prayers have been answered, finally life has been given where none was before. But life does not go as smoothly as they might have hoped. The response of the family to this gracious life and, in particular, the response to God’s choice of Jacob to be the heir of the kingdom and of the promises sows seeds of discord in the family. We, like the family of Isaac, continually face the temptation to let go of the promise in favor of what we can see right now, what seems to satisfy or promise results, right now.

After twenty years of waiting and praying, Rebekah is finally pregnant, but there is a war in her womb. She seeks a word from the LORD and hears,

“Two nations are in your womb,

and two peoples born of you shall be divided;

the one shall be stronger than the other,

the elder shall serve the younger.”

Rebekah is told, before the children are born, that the younger of the two is to be the leader, is the one chosen by God. The first one comes out red and hairy, so they name him Esau. On the outside, he looks the part of the heir, of the prince, of the strong and chosen one. The word ‘red’ admoneh is related to the word adamah (earth/dirt) and the word adam (man). To be ‘red’ or ‘ruddy’ is to be the color of the earth, to be like Adam who was formed from the dust of the earth. The only other person described this way in the Bible is David. So from his very birth, Esau is described in a way that draws associations with Adam. But Esau is also glorious. He is said to be hairy. Again, hairy might not be all that impressive to us – beards go in and out of style – some of us simply cannot grow them no matter how hard we try and our wives graciously discourage us from doing it. In the bible, however, hair is associated with glory. Paul describes a woman’s hair as her glory. The Nazarites, like Samson, took a vow of dedication to the LORD to give glory to God and, at the end of their vow, they offered their hair as a burnt offering, a symbol of their glory. Absalom, son of David, is described in detail relating to his hair, including how much it weighed, and he is outwardly the most glorious man in the kingdom. Additionally, to remove one’s hair was a removal of glory. It could be a sign of mourning or shame. One of the ways of shaming an enemy when you captured them was to cut off their hair, remove their glory.

All this to say: hair in the Bible is associated with glory. So when the first child comes out of Rebekah’s womb and he is red and hairy, this is a good and beautiful thing. He is adam-like and glorious. Outwardly, Esau looks the part. On the outside, he is the perfect candidate to carry on the promise, to take over the kingdom from Isaac. However, Rebekah knows, based upon the word from the LORD, that Esau is not to be the heir. She knows that despite his outward appearance, it is the second son, Jacob, who will be the heir to the kingdom and the promise.

When Jacob comes out of the womb, we have no description of what he looks like. All we know is that he is grasping the heel of his brother Esau. He follows literally on his brother’s heels, but has no distinguishing features that we are told of. But Rebekah knows that he is the one. She has received the promise of God, his word that the older son will serve the younger, and she trusts the promise.

While all outward appearances point to Esau as the glorious son, God has chosen Jacob. God has chosen the younger, the lesser, the weak things of this world in order to shame the strong. So, trusting in the word of the Lord, Jacob should be recognized as heir to the kingdom and heir to the promises of God.

But what happens? It’s verse 28: Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.

What is wrong with this picture? For starters, there is division in the family. Some of this may feel painfully familiar to us. But it goes deeper. Isaac loved Esau because he was fond of game. Esau was a hunter and he brought home meat for Isaac to eat. Esau was Isaac’s favorite son because he filled his belly. Isaac sinned by considering what he saw on the outside and what was personally satisfying to him, instead of trusting in what God had said to be true. However, Rebekah loved Jacob because she trusted the word of God. Jacob is the one chosen by God, not Esau. So what is troubling about Isaac and Rebekah is not just the damaged family dynamics, but that one parent is trusting in the word of God, trusting in the promise of God revealed in his word, and the other is trusting what fills his stomach, trusting his judgment over God’s, his desires over what God has declared to be true.

Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. The sin of Isaac in favoring Esau creates all sorts of trouble in the story moving forward. But Rebekah will trust God’s word and work to bring it to fulfillment.

From the very beginning the two brothers are set over against one another as polar opposites. It’s verse 27: When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.

Esau was a hunter, Jacob was a quiet man – literally a ‘perfect, complete, sound, or wholesome man.’ Esau was a man of the field, Jacob lived in tents. When Esau was hungry, he went out into the wild, killed an animal, brought it home and ate it. Whenever he got hungry again, he would go out, kill and eat. Rinse and repeat. Esau is not a man of forethought, a man of planning. Jacob, by contrast, lives in tents. That does not mean he was an ‘indoorsman,’ but that he stayed on the farm with the livestock. Jacob would work with the animals during the day, manage the books, and then come back and sleep in the tent at night. He was a shepherd. Jacob was being prepared for the responsibility of leading the kingdom. We learn later that he was very good with breeding animals and managing the herd. Esau would go out into the land to hunt and often would not sleep in the tents, sleeping on the ground.

The difference between the two is seen already in the first story we have of them. Esau comes in from hunting and obviously has not caught anything, since he is famished. Notice that he is not starving to death, simply hungry. He sees Jacob making a stew and wants some of it. At this point, Esau does not even know what Jacob is making. He just calls it ‘red stuff.’ He is hungry and for a man like Esau, when he is hungry it is the only thing on his mind. He gets tunnel vision, hangry. It does not even matter what Jacob is cooking, he wants it.

Jacob holds off, asking him to sell him his birthright. According to the word of God to Rebekah, the birthright should already have been Jacob’s. He was to be the heir. However, because Isaac sinned by favoring Esau, Jacob had to find another way to get what should have been his. We should not be too hard on Jacob here. Remember that Esau is not starving. Esau claims he is about to die, but the Bible only says that he is famished. He is not on death’s door.

Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die, of what use is a birthright to me.” Esau says, ‘what does the future matter when I am hungry right now.’ What use is my inheritance when that red stuff looks so good right now? What use is all that has been given to me, all that my father will pass to me, when I am hungry right now? What use are the promises of God, what use is the gospel when I want ‘it’ – give me some of that red stuff.

Thus Esau despised his birthright. He considered it worthless. He sold it for a pot of stew. He took what would have nourished him for a lifetime and threw it away for what would fill his belly in the moment. He took what was a supreme gift and threw it away to satisfy his immediate hungers. He gave up the future for a quick fix in the present.

Esau was given bread and lentil stew, he ate and drank, rose and went his way. Thus he despised his birthright.

We began this morning with Rebekah, waiting twenty years barren. We heard how both barrenness and the blessing of children are so often intertwined in the story of God’s people, in God’s working out of his plan of redemption. We heard the promise given to Rebekah, that of her two children, it was the younger Jacob, not the older more impressive looking Esau who would be the heir of the promise of redemption. But we also saw how Isaac sinned by ignoring God’s word and considering only what he could see on the outside, what satisfied his stomach. We saw Esau also despise the promise of God, the blessed future, in favor of a pot of stew that would fill him only for a moment.

At the center of the biblical story is the drama of the birth of a child, the child. Going all the way back to the garden, there was the promise that God would send a child of Eve who would crush the head of the serpent, undoing and setting right all that had been so grievously set wrong by sin. Generation after generation, the people awaited the birth of that child. God promised that it would from the seed of Abraham, then narrowed it through Isaac, then Jacob, then Judah, then the house of David. Throughout the way, God opened barren wombs and protected threatened children. There was always the temptation to let go of the promise, to let go of trusting in the LORD in favor of what seemed to give immediate results, to give immediate relief. Every generation fo God’s people faced the temptation to love Esau because he fills our bellies or to sell the birthright for a pot of stew. Yet, even when they did, God continued to work out his redemption. Every generation got closer to the promise, but they did not know when it would come. They held on to the promise that God would one day send the child. Then an angel appeared to a virgin named Mary, telling her she would have a son who would finally be the promised child. The covenant carried by Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob passed down to the people of Israel finally found its true purpose at the coming of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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