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When Your Life is Stuck on Pause: Believe Our Best is Still Yet To Come (Gen. 23:1-20)

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What makes a home a home? Saw some interesting quotes about this[1], many of which are probably hung up in people’s houses as we speak:

Home is where the heart is. ~Pliny the Elder

Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.  ~John Ed Pearce

 Home is where the heart can laugh without shyness.  Home is where the heart’s tears can dry at their own pace.  ~Vernon Baker

 Home is the one place in all this world where hearts are sure of each other.  It is the place of confidence.  It is the place where we tear off that mask of guarded and suspicious coldness which the world forces us to wear in self-defense, and where we pour out the unreserved communications of full and confiding hearts.  It is the spot where expressions of tenderness gush out without any sensation of awkwardness and without any dread of ridicule.  ~Frederick W. Robertson

I especially love this last one by Fred Robertson. Home is where you can be you. You can be known and still loved. You can be at peace. You can laugh without shyness. Your tears can dry at their own pace. You can put down your defenses and be at rest. It is where we are with people we love. The Garden of Eden was our home. It was home not just because God our Father and Creator made it for us, but because it was there we were with our hearts are made for. There we walked with God. There we talked with God in perfect fellowship. There we loved Him and was enjoyed His love. There we knew the difference between the Giver and His gifts. There we had purpose, significance, worth, beauty, life and vitality. It is the place where we feel belonging. It is where no one ignores us and where we matter. But due to our sin, we lost it and have been trying to get it back ever since.

The world says you can feel at home if you find the right person, get the right job, follow the right sports team, look the right way, know the right people, climb the right ladder, get a shot at Hollywood, or get the right education or degree. Our parents or ancestors came to this country to find home. Is America home? God bless America, my home sweet home right? Do we truly feel at home because we are in this country? I know when I am in the US, people say the “Indian guy.” But when I go to India, I am “the guy from America.” Which one am I?

No, this world is not our home. Hunger, persecution, terrorism, sex trafficking, nuclear war and injustice all make their home in this world. Yet like children making sandcastles on the beach, we too try recreating a place where we can be captured by beauty and feel in control, i.e. our own “Garden of Eden,” but only to see that in time and time again it is washed away by the brokenness of this world.

This is partly why we love television and movies. We are captured by good stories. It fills us with wonder. Do you know that when the movie Avatar came out, many became depressed and had suicidal thoughts because they wanted to live in Pandora, the planet mentioned in the movie? “Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” Mike posted. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’ “[2]

Seriously? Why? People long for a home. Avatar filled people with a sense of wonder. It’s been like this since Genesis 3. In Genesis, Cain tried to build a home by building a city (Gen. 4:17), but without God and in the end, it was destroyed in a Flood. The Babylonian builders in Gen. 11 tried to do the same with a tower, but that too was stopped. Lot tried to find a home in Sodom, but again, without God, it was destroyed.

And now we have Abraham. He was promised a son who will bring forth a nation, who would bless the earth. The son finally arrived. He was also promised the Promised Land of Canaan. Home. It was to be a place to be with God again, where He will bless the nations of the earth. But now he is 137 years old and still living in tents. God called him out over 60 years before to a land where God showed him. God promised him a home, but when Abraham arrived and until this point, the Canaanites were already living there.

60+ years later, Abraham is still living in tents. Nothing has really changed. He doesn’t even own an acre in the land. He is still stuck on pause. Now things get even more difficult. Sarah dies. She dies without seeing any of the land promise fulfilled. And Abraham realizes his time is short as well. The narrator in Gen. 23, interestingly enough, spends three verses to talk about Sarah’s death, and seventeen verses to talk about how Abraham managed to buy a place to bury Sarah. What is going on here? Is this passage about death? How do prepare for a funeral? How to bargain?

Israel as they would read this, would get it. They are about to enter the Promised Land. In hearing this, they realized that they did not need to enter it with fear, but with confidence. Some may wonder if this land is really theirs? Is this going to be our home? If so, how do we know? That question will be answered here in Gen. 23. God shows His people that He already began to fulfill His promises for their home by giving their ancestor Abraham a down-payment of a cave to bury Sarah, where? It would be right in the heart of the Promised Land. The point? God is faithful to fulfill His promises in His time and in ways we may never see. God is faithful! This is the message the Israelites would realize from hearing this story. But they will also see, along with this:

I. There is no blessing without bleeding (vv.1-2)

Look at Gen. 23:1-2. The Abraham narrative is coming to an end. After all they have been through, Sarah at 127 years of age, dies. By the way, she is the only woman in Genesis and maybe the Bible where we know how old she was when she died. See, from the beginning we see that women don’t share their age or their weight.

Abraham mourns. These are also the first recorded tears of a human being in the Bible. I was really happy to see him cry here. To be honest, in studying this story the past several weeks, I had wondered about Abraham and Sarah’s marriage. Two times he is willing to sell her out to protect himself. And when Sarah comes up with the foolish idea to get a child through Hagar, Abe seemed a little too eager to comply. Later, she calls her body “worn out” and then says, “My lord is old and shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:14). That statement implies that they have not really been physically intimate.

Anyway, I wondered if he truly loved her. And to see him cry here, we see that he truly did. A lot of emphasis is put on the first day of a couple’s life, the wedding day, but here we are reminded that ultimately it is the last day that counts.  The last day, Lord willing, when one has to bury the other and testify to the Lord’s grace. I’m glad Abraham is not standing over Hagar right now. God’s grace has brought him through a lot!

We only grieve because we love. Pastor Keith Krell adds, “in addition to the crying he went through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and fasting. This was all done in the presence of the body. The Jews had a very elaborate and intense process that they went through when someone died.”[3]

By the way, grieving for the death of a loved one is biblical. Paul says, “Grieve, but not as one who has no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Please don’t tell someone who lost a loved one “not to cry” and to “be strong” or worse, “get over it.”  Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Death is bad. When the Bible says that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28), it is not saying all things are good. It is saying some things are bad, but God can transform them into good, His good.

Also, the Bible says when the believer dies, he is brought to the Lord’s presence, in Heaven (1 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). Now this Heaven is an intermediate Heaven, since we are waiting for the new Heavens and the new Earth. If an unbeliever dies, he is taken to an intermediate hell (Luke 16:19-31). And one day, that person will be judged and sent into the eternal hell (Rev. 20:11-15).

But notice the author telling us where Sarah dies: Canaan. Why say that? Because she dies in the midst of waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. She doesn’t see the fulfillment. She dies having to trust God to do as He said. Abraham’s life was hard, but so was Sarah’s. Wenham comments, “Her life was far from easy. She suffered the shame of childlessness till she was ninety. Twice she was trapped in a foreign king’s harem by her husband’s unbelieving folly. Twice she was provoked beyond the breaking point by her slave-girl Hagar or her son Ishmael. Once she had seen her own son leave to be sacrificed by his father. From the way her husband treated her sometimes, one might wonder whether he really cared about his wife at all.” [4]

This is hard; not just because Abraham has lost his wife, but because her death is a reality check for Abraham that the land promises are not fulfilled yet. God called them out 60+ years before. 25 years of waiting for a child until God brought that to fruition.  37 years later, and 62 years of waiting altogether, still no land. Still living in a tent. Abraham said no to the King of Sodom when he said do it his way (Gen. 14:21-23). Abraham had replied, “No, I’ll let God do it His way.” Now his wife is dead. Nothing has changed.

Abraham had also suffered a lot. He was disappointed when Lot left him (13:5-12). He was heartbroken when he sent Ishmael away (21:9-14). He was devastated when he had to offer Isaac (22:1-10). It wasn’t easy at all. And then to be told that really everything you have suffered Abraham is for someone else’s benefit. Wow! Abraham bleeds a lot so others can be blessed. Sarah not just bleeds, but dies before she sees anything herself!

The question here is this: Are we willing to bleed so that others can be blessed? Even if we never see that blessing for ourselves? Listen to Edward Judson: “Success and suffering are vitally and organically linked. If you succeed without suffering, it is because someone suffered for you; if you suffer without succeeding, it is in order that someone else may succeed after you.”[5] There is no success without suffering. There is no blessing without bleeding. And sometimes we might bleed to death so others may live, which we may never see.

I think about our church. The blessing we see today only came because others were willing to bleed, whether it was the TM or the people who served and trusted God faithfully during those lean years. Our parents or ancestors suffered to come to this country and we have the blessing to go to college and get jobs. The question is then, Are we willing to suffer so others can succeed? And to be honest, many of us would say no. In fact, I wonder if deep down in our heart, we believe God owes is to us not to suffer at all. Otherwise, why are we so surprised when something really goes bad in our lives?  We have made this world our home, that’s why. We put all our hope here in this life.

How many of you like rollercoasters? Why?! They do not make sense to me. Why were they created? They don’t take you anywhere, just scare the life out of you and leave you close to a heart attack. Why do people like the idea of watching the ground rush toward them? You wait in line like cattle only to get tossed around like a sock in a washing machine, leaving you with a taste of that morning’s breakfast on your mouth when you finally get off. So I don’t do rollercoasters or merry-go-rounds, for that matter (that’s another sermon).

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But the Metra, on the other hand, I get that. You have stops to take a deep breath. You have scenery to look at. Air conditioning. Comfortable seats. You can actually get to know people, if you wanted to, on the Metra, unlike the roller coaster. And most importantly, there is a point and destination. It is a smooth ride typically and enjoyable. I get the Metra. I don’t get rollercoasters.

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Now what happens when a guy gets on a rollercoaster thinking it’s the Metra? Or a guy gets on the Metra thinking it’s a rollercoaster? Quick death or extreme disappointment, depending on which guy you are. I have been thinking that there are many believers who have gone aboard the rollercoaster of life thinking and expecting it is a Metra ride. We expect a smooth, gliding scenic journey from earth to heaven. I mean we know we will have bumps along the way, but no big dips though on a Metra right? No climbing hills only to fall quickly down. Yet, in a broken world with broken people, we forget that rollercoasters are the way of life.

I know none of us support the prosperity gospel teachers on television who say that we should expect Jesus to bless us to be healthy and wealthy. However, that theology is creeping more and more into our evangelical circles in North America than we think. We have grown to be entitled. Some of us think just because we live a decent moral life (comparatively speaking), God owes it to us to give us what we want. We do our “quiet times,” and think God owes is to us to have a good day. I pay all my taxes and I give my offerings, why aren’t I getting more money? I kept myself pure and got a job, but why I am single? I prayed so much for this, why isn’t it happening? I shared the gospel, prayed for this person, so shouldn’t they get saved now? I had faith and God didn’t seem to honor that! Ever think like that? And in a twisted gospel, instead of living a life where we can never repay God, we become gods and demand that God pay us for something we did. The truth is God is no man’s debtor!

Some people say the roller coaster as frightening, but others call it exhilarating. What separates the two? In one word: control. I love control. I hate not being in control. Lacking control makes me anxious because I am forced to put my trust in something else. Scholar John Walton says, “The distance between a response of fear and one of exhilaration is the belief we have that the situation truly is under control, even if it is not our control.”[6] Some of us already had times we felt we were free-falling. We failed that exam. We lost that loved one. We were laid off from that job. We experienced or seen sickness stop us. Some of us have been victims or victimizers. Others of us have had a smooth life, relatively speaking. We might expect it to keep being smooth. No matter where you are right now, as we sit here, I want to propose one thing: God does not promise a smooth ride, but because God let His Son go for our salvation, He only promises to hold us in His embrace with every twist and turn and free-fall.

I would be sinning as a pastor if I did not tell you that we need to prepare to suffer. I need to prepare us to suffer well. I would love to see God do something amazing in our lifetime through Living Hope and I keep praying for that, but at the same time, I surrender to the Lord. If we are to suffer, so that our next generation can be used to make much of Jesus, so be it. If it means that we bleed, so others after are blessed, so be it. If God decides to close us down to make His name great some other way, so be it. Why? Because God is more real than our needs. God’s name is more important than ours. Christ did not come to put us on a Metra, but to hold us on the rollercoaster, so we can become more like Him and live for His glory and trust Him to bring us ultimately home. Abraham had to bleed in his tent, so others can be blessed with a home in Canaan. Second and last thought:

II. There are no ultimate profits without intentional investments (vv.3-20)

Moses spends a lot of verses giving us the detail of what Abraham does here to secure a burial plot for Sarah. This is significant because the details show us that this transaction really happened. There are witnesses. Specific name of the person who sold the land is given. The people of Israel, Abraham’s seed, truly own property in the Promised Land!

The ancient Israelites placed great importance in the location of their own or family member’s burial site. It was normal and greatly desired to be buried in one’s homeland where one’s family roots were.  Abraham’s and Sarah’s family roots were in Ur (cf. 11:31). Despite the importance of burial location, family roots, and Abraham’s current alien status, he insists on burying Sarah in Canaan, even though doing so is very costly. Why? Because Abraham was not looking backward to where he came from, nor was he looking at his present situation—living in a tent because he did not possess even one acre of the Promised Land. Abraham was looking forward, in faith, to what God had promised![7]

Notice how Abraham sees himself in Gen. 23:4: “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you.” 62 years of living in the land and he doesn’t have a place to call home. Why doesn’t he just settle down? He has the money and the influence. The author of Hebrews says that Abraham lived in tents because he was actually “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).  Abraham did not make himself a home in Canaan, but looked forward to him being in the eternal home, but yet intentionally investing in the present for the glory of God in the future.

Even though Abraham has “bled” and suffered for others, he also, fully trusting in God for the future, make intentional investments in the present for those who will come after him. Notice what he says, “Give me property among you” in Gen. 23:4. The word “property” The word rendered “property” is also used in 17:8; 48:4 of Israel’s eternal “possession” of Canaan.[8] Abraham’s thinking of God’s promises in the future. Pastor Kent Hughes notes, “Abraham was so sure that his descendants would get the land that he wanted Sarah’s bones to be there when they got there! By owning a part of the land he was prophesying its ultimate ownership.”[9] Commentator Walter Brueggemann adds, “The legal action of purchase is a full investment in a promise against the present circumstance.”[10]

So what he asks is for a place not to borrow, but to buy and call his own. Notice the Hittites refer to “tombs” in Gen. 23:5. They don’t want to give him a permanent property, but a temporary tomb. If he borrowed a place, after Sarah’s body decomposed, the Hittites will be able to use the tomb again.[11]

They call Abraham, a “prince of God.” This is encouraging. First of all, this tells us that 1) People may not always listen to what we say, but they will always watch what we do. Abraham has a reputation among the Gentiles. The promise is coming true that he will be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:3). 2) God has used Abraham’s witness despite Abraham’s failures.  Sometimes we may be discouraged by our failed attempts to witness or our failed lifestyle among the people we are witnessing to. God can redeem it!

In Gen. 23:7-9, Abraham is not satisfied with a loan of the tomb. He politely asks for a piece of the land. He knows exactly which cave he wants (Cave of Machpelah) and who owns it (Ephron the son of Zohar). He is intentional here to invest. He is not simply waiting around to die. He has been doing his homework thinking about the future. This is the way he is going to make a down payment on the promises of God. He is not asking for much, just one at the end of the field, meaning it will not be an inconvenience to anyone, it is approachable from the road and Ephron can still use his field.

It turns out Ephron is there. What is tragedy for Abraham is opportunity to Ephron. He looks and feels like Abraham is this desperate man needing to bury his wife and needing to do it immediately. In Gen. 23:10-11, Ephron says, “I’ll give you the cave and I can throw in the field too.” Ephron is investing in the earthly and temporary. He thinks this is a deal of a lifetime. But Abraham is investing in the future, which he will not see.

Abraham agrees in Gen. 23:12-16. He does not bargain with him and pays an enormous amount. Four hundred shekels is a significant amount of money. It equals about seven and a half pounds of silver, but its value can be assessed by the fact that the average wage was ten shekels per year. [12] First of all, he could probably afford it. Secondly, he is thankful God allowed this to happen where he can not just get a cave, but a piece of land. Investing in what will ultimately matter. Ephron is forgotten, but Abraham has a legacy for all eternity. Notice this Cave “east of Mamre,” where Abraham worshipped the Lord and received the bulk of his promises (Gen. 13:18; 14:13, 24; 18:1).

Notice how legal everything is here in Gen. 23:16-20. Details are mentioned to show that everything was done honestly and with dignity. Abraham who had many times try to sell his wife, now pays much so her bones can be a testimony to the children of Israel of God’s promises to them. God is faithful!

Before you is a dot and a line. The Dot represents this life. The Line represents eternity. Which are you living for? If you live only for the dot that’s it. If you live for the line you have both the dot and the line.[13] Have we pitched our tents as though we it’s home? Or are we making investments for eternity? Would our schedule and our checkbooks show that?

I wonder what would happen if we saw everything in life as an investment or expenditure. I would like to change our vocabulary. We say we “spent time with God.” That is not correct. We invested time with God. We invested time in prayer meeting. We invested time in small group. These are eternal investments not temporary expenses. We invest time, money and gas into driving to church, driving others, having meals with people, inviting people over, teaching kids and adults, serving the Lord.

Conclusion

What would happen to the Cave of Machpelah? Abraham will be buried there (Gen. 25:9-10), Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob are all buried there (Gen. 50:24). Think about that. For centuries, this plot of land and the choice that Abraham made to invest in it, stood as a silent witness that the Lord is faithful and has begun to fulfill all of His promises for His people. In Joshua, Israel will get the land, from Dan to Beersheba (Josh. 21:45).

Israel then fails in being a blessing to the nations. They are banished from the land, sent into Exile to Babylonia, where Abraham was originally from. Later a remnant still returns and rebuilds the Temple and the wall. Few hundred years later, Jesus, the “son of Abraham,” (Matt. 1:1) is born…in the land of Canaan. Jesus announces that that believers are actually going to inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). He tells disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19) and that He is going to prepare a place for them to take us back to Himself (John 14:3) and so not to lay treasures on earth which will not last, but in Heaven (Matt. 6:19-21).

What was He announcing? He was announcing that Christ has come to give His people a home, a home where we will be with Him, as He had always wanted. Abraham paid an enormous amount as a down payment that God will one day keep His Word and give His people land. But greater than silver or gold, Jesus shed His blood to purchase us for Himself (1 Pet. 1:18-19). His bleeding has come for our blessing. He gave up His home so we could have a home. He didn’t have even a place to lay his head, so we can have everything in Christ. If He did not die, all of us like Abraham, would only own a grave when we die, but because He died the death we should have died, death is not the end of life, but the beginning! Genesis ends with a full tomb, but the four Gospels end with an empty tomb! Jesus has conquered death and taken away its sting (1 Cor. 15:55–58).

Because of His victory, we need not fear death or the grave.[14] Because He paid for our sin, we no longer have to grab ahold of this world for a home. He is our home. In Him, we find our worth, significance, beauty and life. We are free to suffer in this dot, knowing Jesus ultimately suffered hell. We are free to invest, knowing Jesus paid for our future. God gave Israel the grave site as a down payment in the Promised Land, but God has given us a greater down payment of a promised new creation through an empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. So one day, we will be home as Peter says, “in the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:13).

[1]Taken from http://www.quotegarden.com/home.html accessed 12 April 2012.

[2]Piazza, Jo (Jan. 11, 2010). “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues,” http://goo.gl/hFHOC accessed 12 April 2012.

[3]Krell, K. “A Piece of the Promise,” http://bible.org/seriespage/piece-promise-genesis-231-20 accessed 13 April 2012.

[4]Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 2: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary (129–130). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.

[5]Judson, E. Taken from http://quotationsbook.com/quote/37686/ accessed 13 April 2012.

[6]Walton, J. (2001). The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (517). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7]Krell, K. Ibid.

[8]Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A commentary (318). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[9]Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and blessing. Preaching the Word (309). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

[10]Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching (196). Atlanta: John Knox Press.

[11]Greidanus, S (2007). Preaching Christ from Genesis (223).  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[12]Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (100). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[14]Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be obedient (131). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

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