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Our Hope in Love and Death

Date: 9 Jun 2024, 9.30 am

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong Sermon Text: Genesis 23:1–24:67

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TRANSCRIPT

Three years after they were married, C.S Lewis’s wife died of cancer. And he wrote a book, titled “A Grief Observed”, which was a collection of his reflections, based on his journal entries, on his experience of grief and loss following the death of his dear wife.


In a now famous passage, he writes,


“When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” – A Grief Observed

When the sun is shining, and the skies are blue, and life is smooth sailing, it is easy for our hearts to believe that God is kind and good, and that Jesus loves us, and he is with us, and he is for us.


It is an entirely different matter altogether to feel the same way in the face of grief and loss. bereavement. Faith takes on an entirely different complexion and complexity against the backdrop of sorrow and pain.


Grief and loss have a unique way of robbing us of hope and faith. Our hope for eternal life in Christ can seem so foreign and distant when we are confronted with the stark reality of death, sitting beside a hospital bed, or standing before a coffin. Our belief in a good and loving God, if not shattered, is at least shaken, at the question posed by pain.


Which is the reason why no preacher I’ve heard has ever thought it a good idea to quote Romans 8:28 at a funeral service.


In moments of grieving, CS Lewis observes, when we most need to feel him close to us, God himself can seem distant, inaccessible; locked as it were, behind a closed door. It is in those moments, therefore, when our faith is tested, where our faith is sorely needed.


Bereavement, grief and loss, is what confronts Abraham, our father of the faith, in our text today.


It opens this way:


GEN 23:1-2 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Abraham, is understandably and appropriately grieving over the death of Sarah, with whom he has lived as husband and wife for likely over a century.


These opening verses takes the form of a death report. And most reports of death are immediately followed by a report of the burial of the deceased. We should expect to read something like this.


GEN 23:1-2 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

GEN 23:19 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 

But as we notice, the report of Sarah’s burial comes 17 verses later, at the end of the entire chapter. Which informs the reader, that what takes place in-between verses 1 and 19 is significant to our understanding of the story.


And this is what transpires:


GEN 23:3-6 3 And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, 4 “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” 5 The Hittites answered Abraham, “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.”

Abraham is seeking to obtain a burial plot for Sarah from the Hittites, amongst whom he was living at the time. And they were agreeable to his request for a tomb amongst them.


GEN 23:7-9 7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8 And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.”

And Abraham said, I would like purchase, to buy, Ephron’s cave.


GEN 23:10-11 10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.”

And Ephron said, no need for that, I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you the field and cave that is in it to you to bury Sarah.


And Abraham says, that’s very kind of you. Thank you so much. No he doesn’t. He insists on purchasing the field and the cave.


12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.”

He wants to purchase it because he doesn’t want Sarah to be buried there as a guest in a land that belongs to the Hittites. He wants Sarah to be buried in a land which he owns, which belongs to him.


Which is strange. Because in those times, you bury your dead in your native land. In your hometown. Which means that the Ephron’s proposal would have been a win-win for Abraham. He buries Sarah there for now, for free, and then when the opportunity arises, he can gather her bones and bury them back in Haran, his native land, his ancestral home.


But Abraham chooses to buy the land. Which means what? It means that Abraham intends to make this plot of land Sarah’s permanent resting place. He intends for this land to be his native land, his ancestral home. There would be no going back to Haran. As far as he was concerned, this is home for Sarah and him.


Ephron, who sees that Abraham is determined to buy his property, says,


14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”

Your friend is buying bubble tea, and he texts the group “anybody else wants?” And you reply, “ya buy for me”. And he comes back with your bubble tea, and you say, “how much”, and he says, “no need la, small thing”. And you say, “cannot, let me pay”. And he says, "Aiya, $4.80, what’s that between you and me.”


The moment he says something like that, the moment he names the price, you know what to do right. Take out handphone, PayNow.


And as it is now, so it was then.


GEN 23:16 16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

Abraham paid the price, a handsome price for the field and the cave.


GEN 23:17-18 17 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city.

It was given over to Abraham as a possession. Which meant that it is no longer Ephron’s field and cave, but Abraham’s field and cave, where Sarah is to be buried.


In fact, this is how the chapter concludes. Not with the burial report, but with a purchase receipt.


20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

So the question we have to ask is, what’s so special about this property transaction, this purchase of land, that makes it so significant to the story of Sarah’s death and burial, such that her death and burial is actually secondary to the story, whereas the land is central to it?


What makes the land so significant is the fact that it is the promised land.


GEN 23:1-2 1 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

GEN 23:19 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.

Sarah is laid to rest in the land of Canaan, a piece of which is now in Abraham’s possession.


A detail which recalls God’s promise to Abraham in chapter 17.


GEN 17:8 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

In order words, even in the shadow of death, Abraham lived in the light of God’s promises. In the midst of mourning, Abraham held fast to the blessing. Even in the loss of Sarah, Abraham kept faith in the God who is there.


He may not know how he will one day obtain the Promised Land of Canaan. All he knew at this point of time is that death is come to Sarah, and it is coming soon too for him. But he still believes that God will keep his promise. This land will belong to his descendants as an everlasting possession, and Sarah must therefore have her final rest here.


Abraham understood that the promises of God survives the grave. It is not exhausted in this lifetime.


The fullness of God’s blessing is not experienced in totality in this life, on this earth, there is more to come beyond the grave. There is more to experience, and to enjoy and the gain after death. God’s promises to us is not limited to our brief time on earth.


And that, friends, is the essence of faith.


HEB 11:1, 8-10 1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Faith looks forward, it sees the past the present, it looks beyond the grave.


8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance… 9 By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land…
10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

By faith, Abraham knew that even Canaan is not the final destination. There is a greater Promised Land, not located in this present fallen world, but the new creation, a city whose designer and builder is God himself.


HEB 11:13,16 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth…
16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

These all died in faith, they did not receive the fullness of the promises in their lifetime.


But faith whispers to us, it’s okay.


THE PROMISES OF GOD SURVIVES THE GRAVE IT IS NOT EXHAUSTED IN THIS LIFETIME.


“there is more to come, there is a greater world to inhabit, there is an eternal life to enjoy”.


This world, this life, is not all there is, and it does not need to be.


How many of us are holding back from serving God with all that we have, how many of you are holding back from giving your all to Jesus, because you’re afraid that by doing so, you won’t get to enjoy all that the world has to offer in this life?


We know there is a humanitarian crisis in the middle east and in Ukraine, and in Myanmmar and in Papua New Guinea, and we know this because we pray for them during Pastoral Prayer. But how many of us offer more than thoughts and prayers, and actually give our money towards crisis relief?


So many of us feel like we can’t afford to. Why? Because we have plans to maintain, and more likely, elevate our standard of living in this world, so we cannot afford to increase our standard of giving.


We feel we can’t afford. Why? Because we all have our bucket lists don’t we? Travel the world after retirement. Visit the Niagara Falls. Dive in the Great Barrier Reef before it disappears, see the Sakuras in Japan, climb Mount Everest. Buy a landed property, drive a BMW, own a Rolex watch. And so on, and so forth.


And all of these things cost money, and we have more things we wish to do than we have the money to do it. And we want to be able to let our children do the same, so we save and save, and invest and invest, and we never feel like we have enough to give away to the needy in Gaza, and Ukraine and Myanmar and Papua New Guinea, because why? We need more for ourselves, we are the needy in our eyes.


Friends, in the hustle and bustle of life, our faith whispers to us, “it’s okay to not have it here, it’s okay not see it now, there is more to come, there is a greater world to inhabit, there is an eternal life to enjoy.”


We do not need to experience every blessing there is, in this life on this earth. Our faith looks beyond the grave, it looks beyond this creation to a new creation, where we shall live forever.


And there, we have eternity to enjoy the sights and sounds of a better world than this.


So we can lose how, we can mourn now, we can give up the world, we can give in to others, we can give away and suffer loss today, and still be okay, because we have a promise of a better tomorrow, in world yet to come.


How do we do that? The author of Hebrews tells us: peel our eyes away from the things of the world, recall the lives of the faithful like Abraham and look to the Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.


HEB 12:1-2 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

See Jesus on the cross, see Jesus losing in this world, see Jesus dying in this world, see Jesus shamed in this word, and see how it’s all okay, because he is now seated at the right hand of throne of God.


See grief and loss and death in this world as Abraham and Jesus saw it, with eyes of faith that says, “it’s not the end, it’s not final, there is more to come”.


But we must look to Jesus.


HEB 11:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…

Now if this is the way, the question then becomes, is Jesus there?


We have to look to Jesus, but is he always there?


Because as CS Lewis tells us, sometimes, it feels like God is distant, and God is silent.


Which makes our next story important to hear.

 

It begins like this:


GEN 24:1-4 1 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, 3 that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, 4 but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

A quest to find a wife. Ah, you say, a love story.


And you would be right. After all, listen to its conclusion:


GEN 24:67 67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her.

But hang on a minute, the revelation that Isaac loved his wife only comes in verse 67. In fact, Isaac isn’t even introduced to Rebekah until verse 66.


Which means that unless the servant who was sent to find her is secretly carrying a torch for her, the vast majority of this story, over 60+ verses are wholly devoid of romance.


But it is a love story, just not the one Hollywood has conditioned us to expect. It is about a love that surpasses romance.


Because see how the servant describes it:


GEN 24:12, 14b, 26-27 12 And he said, “O LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.
14b By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
26 The man bowed his head and worshiped the LORD 27 and said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.

It is a story of steadfast love. Not of Isaac to Rebekah, but God to Abraham.


Now here’s the story. We won’t read it all, because it’s just too lengthy. It’s long story, and while Soon Yii was reading it to us earlier, we would have realised why it was so long. Because the servant repeats the story.


He retells the entire story of how he was sent by Abraham to look for a wife for Isaac amongst his people, how he prayed to God to point out to him the right lady by making her the one who would offer his camels to drink when he came to the spring of water, and how Rebekah did so, and he now is on a mission to bring her back to Isaac.


Why the repetition? We already know the story at the first reading. The author could have saved himself some ink, and us some time, by simply saying, “then the servant told Laban all that had happened”. Because we can fill in the blanks. We know what happened.


Here’s the thing. If you read the story, you would have noticed the repetition and perhaps skim through the retelling of it, fast forward, to the new parts.


But the story wasn’t written to be read. The original audience, generally speaking, couldn’t read. It was an oral culture. It was written for the ear. Which means that they had to listen to the entire repetition word for word.


Which means that the author intended for his audience to listen to it twice, because therein lies the emphasis, the point of the story.


And what is repeated is God’s sovereign, constant, abiding hand in guiding the story.


Here how Abraham frames the quest:


GEN 24:21, 40 21 The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ​‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there.
40 The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way.

Abraham’s confidence in success of the mission is not on the effort and guile of the servant, but on God.


Listen to how the servant reflects on the quest:


GEN 24:27b, 48b 27 As for me, the Lord has led me in the way to the house of my master's kinsmen.
48b who had led me by the right [faithful] way

Hear what he does and says when he finds Rebekah.


GEN 24:26-27 26 The man bowed his head and worshiped the LORD 27 and said, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master.

The success of the entire mission is attributed to God’s love, God’s angelic presence and God’s leading.


But note this, if you accompanied the servant on his mission, you would have not have seen God’s angel in your party, you would not have heard God’s voice, you would not have noticed God’s presence.


Indeed, throughout the chapter, we do not read of God speaking to the servant, we do not read of God appearing to servant, we do not read of God’s activity at all.


But the eyes of faith see more than what physical sight can perceive. Faith trusts in the promises of God to never leave us nor forsake us. Faith trusts in the steadfast love of God which faithfully provides. Faith trusts in the Good Shepherd who tenderly guides.


Faith looks to Jesus, and looks back on life here on earth, in the ups and downs of it, in the uncertainties and the victories, through the good times and the bad, faith looks upon it all and sings,


“This my song through endless ages, Jesus led me all the way.”


Friends, this chapter reminds us that in times when we struggle to see the sovereign hand of God, we can nonetheless trust in this steadfast heart of His.

We can always look to Jesus, he is always there,

 

What does it mean for us though? How do we apply this story?


I’ll tell you how not to apply it.


Guys, this is not a sign to look for a potential life partner by hanging around the water dispenser with an empty water bottle, seeing which single lady would volunteer to fill it up for you.


That’s not the way to apply it. It’s not story about how God will find a life partner for you through an unmistakable sign. We would like it be though, wouldn’t we?


We like the moral of the story to be about us - about our agenda, and our felt needs.


But consider this, where in the New Testament, do we find the promise that God will be with us as we go on our way? What was the agenda? What is the mission?


It is the Great Commission.


MATT 28:18-20 18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In other words, the way to apply this story, is not to see ourselves as Abraham, who gives the mission, nor as Isaac, who receives a wife.


No, we are the servant, sent on a mission, with the promise that God will be with us and will lead us all the way.


We are likewise on a quest to seek the bride of the chosen Son – namely Christ, whose bride is the church. We are to seek her far and wide, to the ends of the earth, with the proclamation of the Gospel.


And as we seek to glorify God by being and making disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have the promise that he with us always, to the end of the age.


Some of you may be asking, only when we are disciple-making? is God not present with us at other times? Of course he is, of course he is, the question is, are you present with him?


It’s the school holidays, which means that your children are at home more often than normal. You are present with them, your attention is on them, you want to talk to them, make plans with them, do things with them. You are present with them. But are they always present with you? Sometimes not, isn’t it? They’re in a different world, playing their games, browsing their social media, engaged in their own agenda.


Yes, God is present with us, his steadfast love will never fail us, and his faithfulness endures forever. That much is clear.


But the question for us, is the question the servant posed to Laban.


GEN 24:49 49 Now then, if you are going to show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me.

The servant tells Laban, here’s the deal, here’s the story. This is how God has shown his love to Abraham. This is where God has led me. This is the wife God has chosen for Isaac. 


Laban, the ball is in your court. Will you return the serve? Or will you choose to play your own game?


Will you align yourself to God’s agenda and give me Rebekah, or will you choose not to?


This is what God is doing, are you in or are you out? Your choice. Tell me.


Friends, our God has a plan for the world. He has announced the plan, we call it the Gospel. Hermon, our God is a missional God. He is on a mission, to seek the bride for his Son. He has entrusted the mission to us. He given us the Spirit to guide us and empower us for the mission. He has promised to be with us always, in this mission.


For God so loved the world he gave his only Son, so that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.


This is how God has shown his love for the world. This is what he’s doing in the world – seeking the lost. This is the gospel by which you have been saved. This is the love of the Father you have received.


Will you show steadfast love and faithful to him in worship? Will you get on his agenda, and fulfil his mission? Or are you going to do your own thing? Are you in or are you out? That’s the choice we have to make.


And this my plea, this the call of our text today. Do not write your own story, live into the one God has written, give yourself to the mission that God has given. Participate in and proclaim the greatest love story the world needs to know – the glorious Gospel, the revelation of his steadfast love in Christ, the promise of an eternal life in his kingdom.

 

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