Loss & Hope

Scripture: Genesis 23

Title: Loss & Hope

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • Abraham mourns
  • Abraham buys land
  • Hope for exiles
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

“The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then went and sold all he had and bought that field.”  [1]

Today we continue our series on the life & faith of Abraham & Sarah

–         Last time we heard how God tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham passed the test and Isaac’s life was spared

–         This morning our message focuses on Genesis 23

–         About 20 years have gone by and Isaac is a grown man – 37 years old

–         Sarah dies and Abraham finds hope in the face of death

–         Abraham is like the man who found the treasure and bought the field

–         From Genesis 23, in the NIV, we read…

 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 for a burial site here 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 rose and 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, and 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 there.”

Ephron answered Abraham, “Listen to me, my lord; the land 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 weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.

So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre—both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees 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 (which 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.

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

 

Abraham mourns:

During a storm we might see some lightning and hear some thunder

–         The lightning & thunder happen at the same time but because light travels a lot faster than sound we don’t hear the thunder until seconds later

–         You can roughly calculate how far away the lightning strike was by counting the seconds that pass between the lightning and the thunder

–         Sound travels one kilometre every 3 seconds [2]

–         So, if we hear were to count 15 seconds between a lightning flash and the sound of thunder we know the lightning struck 5 kilometres away, because 15 seconds divided by 3 kilometres per second = 5 km’s

–         Or if we were to count 6 seconds between the lightning and the thunder we know the lightning was closer, only 2 kilometres away

Our emotions are a bit like thunder – our feelings travel at the speed of sound, slower than the speed of light

–         Consequently there is often a gap between something happening to us and us feeling it

–         The more detached from our soul we are the longer it takes us to feel it

–         While the more in touch with our soul we are the quicker we feel it

For example, we might have an accident or get some really bad news and at the time we feel relatively okay, better than we expected we would

–         But then the feeling hits us a couple of days or weeks later – maybe we start freaking out or we break down in tears or whatever

–         Lightning, then the thunder

 

In Genesis 23 lightning strikes (so to speak) when Sarah dies

–         Sarah & Abraham have been together for well over 100 years and they have been through all sorts of experiences (good & bad)

–         Sarah was loyal to Abraham through thick & thin – but she was not one to ride on the coat tails of her husband’s faith

–         Sarah had her own relationship with God

–         Her faith was hard won and tested in the disappointment of barrenness

–         Sarah went from hope to despair and beyond, then back again

In losing Sarah, Abraham lost a great deal

–         Verse 2 tells us that Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and weep over her

–         Abraham is in touch with his soul – he knows who he is and what is important to him. He is comfortable being himself and isn’t trying to be something different

–         Because Abraham is in touch with his soul he is able to face loss honestly, without denial. When lightning strikes he feels the thunder

 

To mourn is to show the sorrow you feel for the death of someone

–         People in the ancient world mourned or showed their sorrow in a number of ways including wearing sackcloth, sitting in solemn silence, putting ashes on their head, tearing their clothes and so on

–         These days we mourn in quite different ways

–         We don’t wear sack cloth but we might wear black clothes

–         We don’t throw ashes on our head but we might dress up for a funeral or hang out with friends & family to share stories

However we do it, mourning is a way of being in touch with our soul and showing others the thunder we are feeling on the inside

–         Mourning is the opposite of hiding our feelings

–         Mourning is refusing to pretend we are okay when we are not feeling ok

–         Mourning means expressing our grief rather than holding it in

–         Mourning is a way of spring cleaning our soul, as opposed to sweeping things under the carpet

–         Many of us in this congregation have done quite a bit of mourning lately

 

We’re not told specifically how Abraham mourned, except that he wept

–         This reminds us of Jesus who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus

–         Weeping releases something in us – it sets us free is some small way

–         Tears are like oil in an engine – tears lubricate the inner workings of our soul so things don’t over heat or seize up

–         Tears reduce the friction caused by death

Of course, when anyone dies there are usually a lot of practical things to organise – so Abraham doesn’t wallow in his sorrow

–         He takes a positive step – he rises to buy some land in order to bury Sarah

 

Abraham buys land:

Victor Hugo, the writer of the book Les Miserables, has a quote…

–         Virtue has a veil, vice a mask

A bride wears a veil over her face as a sign of her modesty – her purity

–         A veil is both delicate and transparent

–         It allows people to see who you are without giving everything away

A mask, on the other hand, is something people hide behind

–         People who wear masks are pretending to be something they are not

–         Virtue has a veil, vice a mask

–         Abraham has a veil, the Hittites (it seems) are wearing a mask

 

Abraham approaches the Hittites in the gate of their city

–         The gate of ancient cities wasn’t just an entry point – it was more importantly a place where legal decisions were made

–         Most ancient cultures were oral cultures, as opposed to writing cultures

–         So if you wanted to make an agreement or settle a dispute you didn’t do this in writing – you did it by speaking publicly with the people involved in front of respected witnesses

–         Abraham goes to the gate because he wants to legally purchase land

Abraham approaches the Hittites in an attitude of humility & vulnerability, as one wearing a veil – modest and transparent

–         He doesn’t come in force, nor does he beg – he is gracious & true saying,

I am a foreigner and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.

Abraham is a ‘resident alien’ – he doesn’t have full citizenship rights so he can’t buy & sell land without permission from the locals

–         There is a certain irony here – Abraham is asking permission to buy the land that God has already promised to give him

–         Abraham doesn’t use God as an excuse to take the land by force – he doesn’t start a holy war with the Hittites to get what he wants, no

–         Abraham modestly puts himself somewhere near the bottom of the social ladder – he humbles himself before the people of the land

 

Again we see something of Jesus in Abraham – I’m reminded of Philippians 2 where the apostle Paul writes…

–         Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…

–         Abraham didn’t grasp the land – but humbled himself saying, I’m a foreigner and an stranger among you

But at the same time he is quite direct & straight up about what he wants

–         There’s no hidden agenda – everything is above board & transparent

–         He wants to own a permanent stake in the land

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.”

The Hebrew which is translated as ‘mighty prince’ there, literally means ‘a prince of God’ [3] (i.e. a prince of Elohim)

–         The Hittites recognise that Abraham has a special relationship with God

–         However, their politeness is somewhat of a mask – the truth is they are reluctant to sell any land to Abraham

–         Behind the mask they are saying, ‘you are welcome to use our land to bury your dead but we want to retain ownership’

Abraham is not so keen on that idea so he wisely requests that they ask Ephron (on his behalf) if he will sell his cave

–         That’s a smart move – Abraham isn’t getting the response he wants from the group so he gets more specific by asking an individual

–         This also shows that Abraham has done his homework – he knows the particular place he wants for a burial site and who owns that land

–         Ephron’s land is near Mamre, which is a sacred place for Abraham because God met Abraham at Mamre

Ephron happens to be there at the gate and says, ‘I’ll give you the field and the cave to bury your dead.’

–         Now, as generous as that sounds, Ephron is not offering to give the land to Abraham for nothing. It’s just a polite (masked) way of saying ‘let’s negotiate’. After all, Abraham didn’t ask for the field, just the cave

–         The fact that Ephron is now making the field part of the deal is a sign to Abraham that he is about to get more than he bargained for

Abraham is not interested in playing games – he gets to the point as quickly as he can and offers to pay Ephron

–         Ephron says the price is 400 shekels of silver – but what’s that between me and you?

–         Well, I can tell you 400 shekels is a lot – more than your average worker could expect to earn in a life time

–         But what can Abraham do? Ephron has him over a barrel

–         He needs to bury Sarah soon, before her body starts decomposing

–         Abraham agrees to Ephron’s terms without haggling with him – which is unusual in that culture. But it’s not about the money for Abraham

–         Clearly Abraham values his wife Sarah – he will gladly pay the price for the woman he loves

By paying what Ephron asked and not negotiating the price down, Abraham reduces the risk of the sale being contested in the future

–         No one can argue that Abraham ripped Ephron off with blankets & beads

–         Abraham is looking to the future – he is staking his claim in the land that God has promised him

–         You see, in that culture people had a strong desire to be buried with their ancestors in their native land. By purchasing a burial place in Canaan Abraham demonstrated his unswerving commitment to the Lord’s promise. [4] Canaan was his new homeland.

 

“The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

–         Like the man in Jesus’ parable, Abraham was prepared to pay whatever was necessary to gain the treasure (the hope) that field promised

 

Hope for exiles:

This story of Abraham buying land in Canaan is really a story of hope for the exiles

Many centuries later Abraham’s descendants (the nation of Israel) were under siege by the Babylonians and the city of Jerusalem was about to fall

–         The people were facing either death or exile to a foreign land

–         At the very point of facing defeat God tells his prophet, Jeremiah, to buy a field

–         In many ways it was a crazy financial decision – buying land just weeks before the Babylonians seized possession of it

–         But God asked Jeremiah to do this as a sign of hope in the face of death & exile

–         The Lord was saying to the people, ‘I will restore you and your land. One day you will again buy & sell property in Canaan and live in safety’

 

In some ways it was similar with Abraham

–         Abraham was facing death – he had just lost his dear wife Sarah and he was, by this stage, an old man himself, at 137

–         As a resident alien, a landless foreigner, Abraham was also a kind of exile

–         He had left the land of his birth to follow the call of God and now Canaan was his new homeland – but he wasn’t yet a full citizen so he was sort like an exile in his own country

–         Buying real estate was a courageous act of hope – It was a way of saying our present circumstance does not determine our future

–         Beyond death there is resurrection – life with abundance

–         Beyond exile there is restoration – belonging with peace

 

New Zealand has undergone rapid change in recent years. Some of those changes have been good but other changes have been detrimental to community

–         I heard someone say recently that, ‘Culturally speaking, the church in NZ is in exile at the moment.’ There is truth in that statement

–         To be a Christian in NZ is to be like a resident alien in your own country

–         It’s not quite as difficult for us as it was for Abraham – we can still buy & sell property for example

–         But to a large extent the way of Christ is a foreign concept to our society

–         Even the stories of the Bible are foreign to many people today

–         We are a minority and we are not in power

 

Conclusion:

So what are we to do? Well, we take a leaf out Abraham’s book

We stay in touch with our soul so that we can face loss honestly, without denial

–         When lightning strikes we feel the thunder

–         We don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt – we mourn, we weep

–         But we don’t wallow in our sorrow either

–         After our tears we rise and act positively, doing what needs to be done

 

When dealing with those who don’t share our faith we wear a veil, not a mask

–         We don’t give everything away but we don’t pretend to be something we are not either – we don’t fake it, nor compromise who we are

–         We humble ourselves, remaining modest & transparent

–         We don’t seize, by force, what God has promised – we pay our dues

–         We don’t wage a holy war against our neighbours – we seek the peace, the wholeness, the shalom of the city in which we live

 

Above all we face death & exile with a spirit of hope – a determined belief that God’s kingdom will come in our land one day

–         That doesn’t necessarily mean we go round buying up real estate

–         The field where our treasure is buried is not a literal patch of dirt

–         Jesus is the treasure – Jesus embodies the Kingdom of God in his person – so the field is wherever we find Jesus

Three places we are likely find Jesus…

–         In the Bible

–         In right relationship with other believers

–         And in our own experience of suffering

But the key to finding Jesus is the Holy Spirit

–         So when we read the Bible we ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate Christ in the Scriptures – to shine his light on what we are reading so we can see the heart of God

–         And when we are hanging out with other Christians we ask the Holy Spirit to connect us – so we are aware of the presence of Christ among us (Where two or three are gathered in his name, Jesus is with them)

–         And when we are going through a difficult time we ask the Holy Spirit to make us one with Christ in his suffering – for if we share in his suffering we will also share in his glory

 

Questions for discussion or reflection:

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    Can you think of a time in your life when lightning struck and then thunder followed a little later? What happened?

–         What does it mean to be in touch with your soul?

–         How in touch with your soul are you?

3.)    What does it mean to mourn?

–         How do you mourn?

–         Why is it important not to wallow in our sorrow?

4.)    Victor Hugo said, “Virtue has a veil, vice a mask”.

–         What do you think this means? How is a veil different from a mask?

–         In what sense did Abraham wear a veil in his dealings with the Hittites?

5.)    What is the significance of Abraham insisting on buying land to own in perpetuity, as opposed to borrowing a tomb to bury Sarah?

6.)    Discuss (or reflect on) the similarities and differences between Abraham’s and Jeremiah’s real estate purchases

–         How was the purchase of land an act of hope in the face of death & exile?

–         What acts of hope might we perform in the face of death & exile?

7.)    In what sense is the church in NZ in exile at the moment?

–         What can we do in a context of cultural exile?

8.)    Take some time this week to find the treasure of Jesus (with the help of the Holy Spirit)…

–         By reading the Bible

–         Spending time with other Christians

–         Or in some difficulty you are facing at present

 

 

[1] Jesus, quoted in Matthew 13:44.

[2] https://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-the-Distance-from-Lightning

[3] Refer Bruce Waltke’s commentary on Genesis, page 318.

[4] Refer footnote to Genesis 23:19 in the NIV Study Bible, page 40.

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