A cloud of witnesses, part 3: Isaac and Jacob
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
This talk is on Hebrews 11 verses 17 to 13, Abraham and Sarah.
Earlier in the service, the command to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22:1--14 was read and young people acted out the story.
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’
‘Here I am,’ he replied.
Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.’
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’
‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.
‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’
Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’
‘Here I am,’ he replied.
‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, ‘On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.’
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Our first reading this morning is from Hebrews 11:17–21.
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
How often it is that we might think about the lowering of moral standards and the decline of traditional family life. We might say that it comes down to the fact that people don’t come to church any more or that God doesn’t play much of a role in people’s lives because they’re not as Christian as the country used to be. I don’t know about that. I’ve always been of the opinion that God has always been involved in people’s lives, to the extent whether or not people have accepted Jesus into their life, because God, I think, works in people’s lives before they become Christians.
As for the decline in normal life, aren’t we all a bit guilty of being a bit abnormal at times? I’ve got a book at home called “Everyone’s Normal Until You Get to Know Them”. I think it’s probably true. We think that the way we do things in our family is the accepted way of doing things everywhere. But then you get things like Christmas. Some families do it loudly with parties. Some like to have their nearest and dearest around them for a slap-up Christmas lunch. Others want to start the day perhaps with a special salmon breakfast in bed and opening the presents throughout the day.
Still others will want to relax during the day and then eat the Christmas turkey dinner after the Queen’s speech. Of course, during the day, there’s always an argument about something. Maybe our own family standards are shown for what they really are when we’re thrown together for big celebrations. I say all of this because it’s interesting that we say that family values have declined, but from my reading of various Bible stories, there are few straightforward families even back in the Bible times. I, for one, am very pleased that the Jeremy Kyle Show has been axed once and for all.
Today, in the next part of our read through this Cloud of Witnesses series, we discover that God chooses to use imperfect families and imperfect people, even downright deception, to ensure that his purposes are worked out. And even perhaps if we don’t understand the circumstance in which they’re worked out, they are somehow worked out in faith. In our first week, we looked at Abel on whom God looked favourably. We looked at Enoch and Noah, both of whom walked with God. Next, we saw how Abraham and Sarah believed God in spite of impossible circumstances.
Today, we come to the fulfilment of some of God’s promises in that birth and life of Isaac and Jacob, two generations of Abraham’s offspring, a son and a grandson. We discover that quite imperfect people or even outright liars still have a place in God’s hall of fame. Two readings from Genesis 25 and 27. Genesis 25:27–34, Jacob and Esau.
The boys grew up, and Esau became a skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, ‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ (That is why he was also called Edom.)
Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’
‘Look, I am about to die,’ Esau said. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’
But Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.
Intriguing. Then just over the page in chapter 27 and the first 10 verses, just to put everything that I’m going to say in context, Genesis 27:1–10.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for his elder son Esau and said to him, ‘My son.’
‘Here I am,’ he answered.
Isaac said, ‘I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. Now then, get your equipment – your quiver and bow – and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.’
Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, ‘Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, “Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.” Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so that I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.’
This is a confusing passage. We don’t have loads and loads of time today to do justice to the whole storey of these fathers of faith. Already today, we’ve looked at Abraham and Isaac. Beyond this storey, we have a messy family of strife between a pair of twins, Esau the older twin and Jacob the twin who came out holding his brother’s heel. We have two parents who each favour a different son, not that anybody has favourite children. Isaac and Rebekah are the parents of Jacob and Esau, but it looks like there is some kind of strain in their relationship.
Isaac already has his own plans for Esau, the older son, the firstborn. Maybe he believes that Esau would be the natural progression of inheritance of stuff and of things that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac’s dad, that they would be the father of many nations. God has decided that, in spite of his devious and deceitful character, it would actually be Jacob, the other brother, who would be the inheritor of God’s plan. Jacob is favoured by Rebekah. It seems that Rebekah has heard from God that the younger will serve the older. That’s found in Genesis 25:23.
There are two things here at stake, inheritance and blessing. One seems to be about stuff, the other seems to be about status and only one son seems to be able to get both. In the context of Hebrews 11, both are about the things yet unseen, the faith of these people. Four the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, it’s also about how this promised land would be prosperous through farming and how the brother with the blessing would have supremacy within the family. Let’s have a quick look at these two main storeys that link Isaac and Jacob, looking at where on earth faith comes into it. The first storey is where Esau comes home from a hard day’s hunting. You know how it is. You’ve been at Cheshire Oaks all day at the height of the shopping season and you’re whacked out. You don’t want to get anything out of the fridge and you just want to snaffle off of somebody that’s already made some food, something off of somebody else’s plate. Quite by chance, your sibling has made a delicious dinner and so you ask to have some.
Their reply is that they’ll only give it to you if they get all that is due to you in your parents’ will. It’s a really weird request. Famished as you are and because there’s no access to get McDonald’s delivered, you reluctantly agree. After all, you’re literally starving hungry and it’s not going to be worth your having any inheritance if you’re dead of hunger. This is precisely what happens in the first storey. Esau the eldest brother and favourite of father Isaac gives up his rights to his inheritance for a mess of portage.
The swearing of an oath in these days was a legally binding activity, and so the deceitful, vicious Jacob gets everything that was due his brother. The inheritance becomes Jacob’s, but under a different way from the norm, leaving Esau seething and beside himself with envy of what should have been his. A couple of chapters in, in Genesis chapter 27, the scheming Jacob also gets a blessing from his father by literally cooking up a plan with his mum, ending in Jacob receiving his father’s blessing. Isaac is blind, but not stupid. He wants to bless his eldest son Esau, but what we tend not to see in the storey is the cultural backhanded-ness of what doesn’t happen.
Isaac’s planned blessing for Esau as the eldest and favourite should, apparently, take place in a public context, in a public setting and it seems that Jacob will be excluded from this occasion. It also seems that Isaac was not planning to have any witnesses to his blessing Esau and so sends Esau out to prepare a blessing feast. What occurs, as we have read, is that Rebekah hears about this storey and quickly prepares the same food, but with the intention that Jacob dresses up in Esau’s clothes and with some extra hair to prove that it’s Esau to receive the blessing. What a mad family.
Isaac, being blind, smells the clothes that Jacob has been dressed in and along with the food that Jacob attributes to God’s goodness and quickly getting it to him, receives the blessing from his father that cannot be rescinded. It cannot be taken back and given to another. Once more, we find out that the moment this blessing is bestowed upon Jacob and not Esau, Esau reappears just at that moment and once more, he finds out that he has been misled and has now missed out on both his inheritance and on his father’s blessing. This doesn’t really make too much sense to us today, especially as we think of God’s blessing being available to us as his children. For God to withhold his goodness, his blessings, seems rather odd.
Back to this by faith Isaac in Hebrews 11, where is his faith? Isn’t he mistaken for blessing the youngest son? It might be all well and good for us to say that God never makes mistakes and that he allowed Jacob to practise such deceit to receive Isaac’s blessings, but to me, that almost excuses Jacob when the rest of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, states that Christians or God followers should be beyond reproach and not evil doers. What on earth is happening here?
Isaac could not go back on blessing Jacob. He couldn’t reinstate it to Esau. I wonder whether Isaac’s faith was that he stuck by the blessing and trusted that God would do the right thing. I wonder whether somehow Jacob’s faith in God was somehow heightened with this absolute messiness, seeing that even through the deception that got him what God had promised Rebekah and that God was going to use him anyway in spite all because of his stupidity. I wonder whether Jacob would have somehow got Isaac’s blessing anyway in another circumstance or through another circumstance.
Perhaps there have been times in your life when you think that you’ve made a massive mess-up and that there’ll be no way back from such a monumental mistake and yet, here we are. You are still here, you are still breathing, you are still loved by a God who created you and knows the end from the beginning and even if he didn’t, you trust that he wants what is good and best for you. You might still be reeling from a bad decision or wondered what would have happened if you hadn’t acted or reacted in a different way.
When I started this series, I quoted from a book called How To Be Here by Rob Bell. He talked about the stuff that wasn’t interesting, the if-only stuff, the things that didn’t happen to us, the things that are not, and the things that we did not do. Those things that actually have tormented us and have made us wonder whether or not we made the right choice. Rob Bell reminded us that stuff isn’t interesting because of choices and actions that were taken instead of the ones that weren’t. I hope that makes some kind of a sense.
I guess what I’m saying is that we often like to beat ourselves up about the things that didn’t occur in our lives. We kid ourselves that if only we had done, acted or said something differently then … but we can’t go back, just like Isaac could not go back on his blessing, but that does not mean it’s wrong. It’ just different and who knows? It may have already been God’s ultimate plan all the way along. There is always a way through the hard times, the mistakes, and the mishaps. It might not always be an easy route, but God holds your hand throughout and he will often provide people that you know to journey through those times and alongside you.
Hebrews leaves us to think about Isaac and his faith in these terms. In the same breath, it also leaves us almost imposing about how the deceiver Jacob had had 12 sons, all of whom became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. Before he died, we read that he lent on his stick. Four me, when I read this, I get the sense of accomplishment for Jacob. This massive hero of the Old Testament only gets this glimpse of God’s hall of fame here in Hebrews 11. Yet he’s fathered 12 children, all of whom would continue the promise that God had made to his grandfather Abraham, that through his children, he would become a great nation.
As Jacob reflects upon his years and as he looks with pride, perhaps, upon his children, I get the sense that whatever he has done and whatever adventures we might read in the middle chapters of Genesis about him, he has left a legacy of faith. The future of his family line, which was really important in those days, was safe and that he could rest with ease and contentment and not be fearful of his sons’ futures because somehow, God was in control all the way. That’s the reason why I chose that hymn earlier, “All the Way My Saviour Leads Me”. It’s a hymn of faith. It’s a statement of faith about what we know of God. I think it’s a song that I would love to have sung at my funeral.
All the way my Saviour leads me.
What have I to ask beside?
I cannot doubt his tender mercy,
Who through life has been my guide.
For I know, whate’er befalls me.
Jesus doeth all things well.
It’s quite a triumphant hymn, actually. Is a thoughtful, grateful, respectful honouring tribute. Knowing that even if we find it hard to see our faith at work, just as how we have seen how difficult it was for us to see the faith in these storeys of Isaac and Jacob this morning. Jesus does in, fact, lead us. Even when we don’t really think we’re headed in the right direction, it doesn’t mean that we’re not being held and led. Jesus reminds us in the gospels that no parent offers a child a scorpion when they ask for a slice of bread.
God knows how to give a good gift, good things to his children. When we think about an inheritance, it is because someone, who has gone on before us, has thought of us before time, and has perhaps left us something in trust. That is what these heroes of faith left in trust. That’s their inheritance to us. And a blessing? Well, we can receive that every time we turn to Jesus. We need to be a blessing to one another and to the world. To show God’s love through our lives now, this day. And so go, be a blessing. Let’s pray.
Lord God, we’ve looked at an awful lot of Old Testament stuff this morning. Having looked at Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, those massive heroes of faith. Even when it’s difficult for us to see their faith, we are reminded in Hebrews 11 that they clung on to you. Lord God, you know the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I pray that you would help us to cling on to you. To cling on to your promises even if we can’t see or feel you. Help us to be reminded that we have promised to serve you and that you have promised never to leave us or forsake us, and so would you help us as we go in Jesus name. Amen.
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