Are You Missing Christmas?

The northern Israeli town of Nazareth will be missing Christmas. It is not as if there will be no ribbons or tags. It is not as if there will be no packages, boxes or bags. All town holiday plans, including a Christmas festival have been halted. The mayor of Nazareth has canceled Christmas and for only one reason. President Donald J. Trump has taken away the joy of the holiday.

It is quite the contrast when on December 25, 1843 at the sound of nine o’clock in the morning, a man awoke to the realization that he had not missed it. He had not missed Christmas. And with too much delight he exclaimed, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.  A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world!”

I have missed Christmas. And it is always in the afternoon of January 1. It is on that day that everything goes back to normal. The local radio station returns to playing the hits of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today. Christmas baking is no more. The store has already replaced the Christmas candy with chocolate hearts. The Christmas tree will soon be boxed away or placed at the curb. And the home will soon feel bare. January 1 is when I miss Christmas. But not this year. This year it is different. It is December 17 and I am wondering, are you missing Christmas?

The Help of Every Detail

Luke 2 is a treasure. Mary the mother Jesus thought Luke 2 to be a treasure. She was one of the first people to ever hear Luke 2 and when she did, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). All these things refer to things beginning with verse eight. I love the word treasure; nearly every English translation includes it. It means to keep safe or to guard with close care. And the way this is written is that as she heard these things, things beginning with verse eight, she was treasuring each, each detail and each part and each thing in her heart. And hold on to this – she was guarding each detail and each part and each thing beginning with verse eight with close care.

But notice the word ponder. It could also be the word meditate. This is so interesting. Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke. Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the New Testament book called Acts. And here is what is so exciting: Luke is the only New Testament writer that uses this word translated as ponder or meditate. It literally means to come together. Here it is used to show that as Mary closely guarded these things in her heart, she pondered them. She brought each thing together and ruminated over them. She thought deeply about each thing. How so? Remember, Luke is the only New Testament writer who uses this particular word. And he uses it mainly in the book of Acts. There we see it used as meaning to meet up together. But it is when it is used in Acts 18:27 that is really helpful. “And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed.” It is the word helped. This is the same word as ponder or meditate in Luke 2:19. And in Acts 18:27 it is described as a great help. What is the point? These things, each detail and each part beginning with verse eight, Mary guarded with close care and pondered them. Why? Each thing was a great help to her.

Are you missing Christmas? Would you like some help?

A Known Name in the World

Mary treasured up all these things and these things begin with verse eight. We know this because of who has told Mary all these things. The things she has heard and the things she has treasured and things that are of great help are told to her by some shepherds. And these shepherds do not get mentioned until Luke 2:8.

But I have to share something I have never noticed. I have preached Luke 2 before and never saw this. I grew up listening to Luke 2 every Christmas Eve in our living room awaiting to go to bed in anticipation of Christmas morning. I never appreciated this. In order to get to Luke 2:8 you need to begin with Luke 2:1. This is just to say that the entire context of Luke 2:8-20 is Luke 2:1-20. And it is just really helpful. Notice how Luke 2 begins. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke 2 begins with a known name in the world. The known name in the world is Caesar Augustus. And what does he do? He issues a decree that goes out into all the world that all the world should be registered. Why is this so important?

Listen carefully to Luke 2:4-5. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary his betrothed, who was with child.” Why is Joseph making his way to Bethlehem? It all has to do with that decree. And who is with him? Now notice verse six. “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.” And pay attention to verse seven. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Why does any of this matter?

No Names in the Field

Listen to Luke 2:8. “And in the same region.” What region is that? It is the same region as the previous verses; Judea, the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Such a contrast to verse one; a known name in the world to no names in the field. The decree from verse one sent Joseph and Mary who was with child, along with anyone else who is from Bethlehem, to Bethlehem. If not for that decree, what reason would Joseph and Mary have for being in Bethlehem at this time? If not for that decree, Mary does not give birth in Bethlehem. If not for that decree, Mary does not wrap her firstborn son in swaddling cloths and lay him in a manger, a feeding box for animals. And if not for that decree, there is room in the inn. If not for that decree, this is just another ordinary night for some shepherds in the field.

Fear Not, For Behold

And it is somewhat interesting that we do not know how many shepherds were in this field on this night, nor we do we know their names. It is funny to me that in some religious traditions there is much made, too much made, of the wise men who came to see Jesus after his birth. Much is made about their number – three – and their specific names. Both being something that the Bible does not say. But no such concern is made about these shepherds. Why is that?

As these shepherds were out in the field an angel of the Lord appeared to them. The word appeared literally means to stand among. Out of nowhere an angel is standing among these shepherds and they are filled with fear and not just any fear, but great fear. And now listen to verse ten. “Fear not.” Just note this; this is a command. Keep listening. “Fear not, for behold.” Just note this; this too is a command. Two commands to these no name shepherds in the field. Do not be afraid and behold.

Pay attention to those two commands and especially the word behold. Behold is the reason to not be afraid and it simply means to look. These shepherds are commanded to look or see. And it is given in the sense to do this now. But here is the great part. This kind of looking is a looking that is to become knowing. Behold that you might know.

Listen to the rest of verse ten. What are these shepherds to see that might become knowing? “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.” Pause there. Who is afraid, greatly afraid? The shepherds! And what are these shepherds to see that might become knowing? Good news of a great joy. Now just notice the rest of what the angel has to say about this good news of a great joy. I like how the New International translation words it. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” And who is this good news of a great joy for? It is for all the people. What people? This is too wonderful; beginning with what people? Write that question down and we will get back to it.

And first, do not miss this great joy. Listen for it in Luke 2:11. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The great joy is a Savior, one who is mighty to rescue. The great joy is a Savior whose name is Christ, the Messiah, God’s promised King. The great joy is a Savior whose name is the Lord, he is God Almighty. Do not miss this great joy. Who initially is not to miss this joy? Who is the you in verse eleven?

Listen to Luke 2:12. “And this will be a sign for you.” This is about not missing this joy. Again, who initially is not to miss this joy? Who is the you in verse twelve? The word sign means a distinguishing mark and the distinguishing mark is a baby; a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths; a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger. And again, if not for that decree…

Pay attention to Luke 2:15. “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’” The word see is the same as behold in verse ten. Let us go that we might know…this thing that has happened. And as the shepherds go to know this thing that has happened, they find Joseph and Mary. And when they do, they relay the things beginning with verse eight. Look closely at verse eighteen. “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” But Mary treasured and pondered. Remember, Mary is guarding with close care each part, each detail, each thing she has heard which all begins with verse eight. Who was telling her these things? The shepherds! So, could it be that one of the details, one the parts, one of the things she guarded with close care was these shepherds?

I think the shepherds may be a big part of the big idea. The good news of a great joy for all the people began with shepherds. It was good news of a great joy for them. Unto you in verse eleven included these shepherds. The sign in verse twelve was given to these shepherds.

Why the Shepherds?

Somewhat of a big question of the text is, why the shepherds? Why are the shepherds so prominent here? Some have suggested it is because shepherds shepherd sheep. And these shepherds could have been shepherding sheep that would be used for Passover. The birth of Jesus is the birth of the ultimate Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Others have suggested it is because the birth of Jesus is the birth of the good Shepherd. So, news that is first given to shepherds is about the greatest Shepherd who loves his flock and will give his life for the flock. This also is a fulfillment of Micah 5. The one born in Bethlehem is the shepherd of Israel (Micah 5:4).

But I have another suggestion. The word shepherd means a feeder, a protector. It is the word we get for pastor. Pastors are shepherds who feed and protect a flock, a flock of people. How do they do that? Ephesians 4:11 explains that pastors do that with teaching. And notice these shepherds, these pastors, after spreading this good news of a great joy to people, went back to work (Luke 2:20). I like to think that part of Luke 2 and this news coming to shepherds first, is so that pastors will not miss Christmas.

Are You Missing Christmas?

And so, I come back to the question. Are you missing Christmas? And to not miss Christmas…

1. Do not be afraid. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).

2. What really drives out fear? Behold the good news of a great joy for it causes great joy.

3. And get back to work. After all these things, the shepherds went back to work “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

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And He Called His Name Jesus

The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine writings, more commonly known as books. The first book of the Old Testament is called Genesis and the last book of the Old Testament, number thirty-nine, is called Malachi. Genesis is rather big. It has fifty chapters. Malachi is rather small. It has just four chapters. The fourth chapter of Malachi is the smallest of these four chapters having just six verses. But that sixth verse has something really important at the end of it: a period.

What is so important about that period? This period brings the whole Old Testament to a close. There are no more Old Testament writings after this period. And there are no more Old Testament writings because there are no more prophets after this period. And even though this period brings the whole Old Testament to a close, it begins another period. This is not another grammatical period, but rather a time period – the time between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. The technical name for this is the intertestamental period. But it is also referred to as a time of silence. Why is it called a time of silence? After that period at the end of Malachi and until the New Testament begins, there are no more writings and there are no more writings because there are no more prophets. There are four hundred years between that period at the end of Malachi and the beginning of the New Testament.

And the question is, what breaks that silence?

An Angel Speaks

The answer: an angel speaks. An angel first speaks in Luke 1:12. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” An angel speaks a second time in Luke 1:30-31. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” An angel speaks for a fourth time in Luke 2:10-11 to some shepherds out in some field. It was Christmas night. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

An angel speaks four times and each time is a part of breaking that four hundred years of silence that began with that period at the end of Malachi. And the question is, why does this, an angel speaking, break that silence? This is so exciting. I want us to listen to 1 Peter 1:12. This verse is the end of one long sentence. “It was revealed to them [this refers to the Old Testament prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you.” Pause there for a moment. How were these Old Testament prophets found to be serving us? By the way, this includes prophets like Malachi. “In the things that have now been announced to you.” This is great. So, Old Testament prophets, which includes prophets like Malachi, were found to be serving us in things! What things? Keep reading. “In the things that have now been announced to you through those who have preached the good news to you.” The things are found in the good news. Now make note of this; one of the four times that was used to break that silence started by that period at the end of Malachi was the good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.

Keep reading. “In the things that have now been announced to you through those who have preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things…” What things? “…things into which angels long to look.”  Mark the word look. Angels long to look into these things. What things? The things found in the good news. The word look means to stretch forward the head through a window or door. In the second century b.c., this is that intertestamental period or the time of silence, look was used of slaves who would bend over the edge of a flat roof to catch a glimpse of musicians playing their music in the courtyard. So, these things are like music to the eyes and ears of angels! These things are those four times of breaking the silence!

And in Matthew 1:18-25 an angel who longs to look into these things, speaks for the third time, again, breaking the silence.

The Birth of Jesus Christ Took Place

It all begins with Matthew 1:18. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” First, notice the word “Now.” It is a word of transition; a transition right in the middle of Matthew 1. Why is that? What is it transitioning from? Notice how Matthew 1 begins. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” This is the book or record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. And the book is Matthew 1:2-17, a record or family tree of the ancestry of Jesus Christ. But what is really interesting is the word genealogy. It is the Greek word genesis. So, Matthew 1:1-17 is the historical record of the genesis or ancestry of Jesus Christ. Then in verse eighteen is this word of transition. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Mark that word birth. It is the Greek word genesis. Matthew 1 is the transition of one genesis to another genesis. The first genesis is the family tree, the historical record of Jesus Christ. The second genesis is how it all took place, how the birth of Jesus Christ took place.

And it took place in this way. Pay close attention to the way this is worded. The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. In what way? There is no inn. There is no manger. There are no shepherds. There is no drummer boy. How did the birth of Jesus Christ take place?

Mary Had Been Betrothed to Joseph

The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way: Mary had been betrothed to Joseph. This is really important, more important than I have ever seen before. The word betrothed is like being engaged to be married, but not really. I just want us to observe that this is the very first thing that Matthew mentions when it comes to how the birth of Christ took place. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. And to be betrothed was to be engaged, the difference being was that it was legally binding, as legally binding as being married. The marriage process began with this betrothal and was not completed, and this is so sweet, until the groom took his bride home. This is why Matthew includes the next few words. “When Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together.”

Mary Was Found to be With Child

The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way: Mary was found to be with child. This too is really important, more important than I have ever seen before. Pay attention to how this is all worded in verse eighteen. Notice the word when and notice the word before. “When Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Mary was found to be with child. It had become obvious that she was pregnant. And the question is when? When did it become obvious she was pregnant? It was when she had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together. In other words, this was not Joseph’s child. It was not any man’s child. This is why Matthew includes “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew will emphasize this again in verse twenty. “For that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Remember the very first observation given by Matthew. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. And when she had been betrothed to Joseph it was discovered that she was pregnant. What happened first? The betrothal or the pregnancy? Listen to Luke 1:26-27. “In the sixth month [this refers back to the previous verse] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Now pay attention to verse thirty-one. “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” The betrothal happened first and then the pregnancy. And the point is that God did not choose a single, available young woman to conceive and bear and raise His Son. God chose a virgin woman to conceive and bear and raise His Son. But it was a virgin who was betrothed, meaning, God also chose a man.

And Her Man Joseph

This is why in verse nineteen, considering all that was just said in verse eighteen, it reads, “And her husband Joseph.” I love how this literally reads: And her man Joseph. How did the birth of Jesus Christ take place? The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way: her man Joseph. God chose a man to raise His Son. His name was Joseph. What is there to know about Joseph, her man Joseph? He was a man, a just man, a righteous, upright, virtuous man. Joseph was a good man. And this good man discovered that Mary was pregnant. He discovered it because it was obvious. So, what possibly could he be thinking? Better yet, what possibly could he be feeling? Who really was this good man?

Listen to the rest of verse nineteen. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” He would divorce Mary, quietly, he thought. But just let those words – “unwilling to put her to shame” – sink in and answer, who really was this good man? This was her man.

My Dad said that this is his favorite Christmas passage. It is because he admires Joseph so much. And my Dad admires Joseph so much because of the end of this passage. “He did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife” (1:24). Joseph, her man, took his woman home. This was the man God chose to raise His Son. In choosing a virgin woman betrothed to this man, God also chose a home. The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.

What Changed Joseph’s Mind?

What changed Joseph’s mind? When he found out that Mary was pregnant, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, he was going to divorce her although quietly. He was going to end this relationship. So, what changed his mind? He went to sleep. And when he went to sleep, he was thinking about all these things. And when he went to sleep thinking about all these things, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife.’” This is third of the four times that an angel speaks breaking the silence began by that period at the end of Malachi. And the angel breaks the news that Mary is indeed pregnant. And it is not Joseph’s child. It is not any man’s child. It is by the plan of God. It is by the design of God. It is of God. This is a divine conception.

And the great part is that when Joseph awakes, there is no wondering what had just happened. Instead, he runs to his woman and takes her home. He obeys with joy. Why?

And He Called His Name Jesus

The angel told Joseph that the child was a boy. And the angel told Joseph the boy’s name. Listen to it. “And you shall call his name Jesus.” The you is singular, meaning the you is Joseph. Joseph, you will call his name Jesus. And notice how the chapter ends. “And he called his name Jesus.” But what does Jesus mean? Look at Matthew 1:21. “For he will save his people from their sins.” What really changed Joseph’s mind? Jesus. How does Jesus make the difference?

And this is the greatest part. Listen to verse twenty-two. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.” What took place? What is all this that took place? The birth of Jesus Christ. This, Matthew 1:18-21, all took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet. The prophet is Isaiah and what Isaiah said was Isaiah 7:14. Listen to it. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” What does Immanuel mean? God with us.

How does Matthew 1:18-21 fulfill Isaiah 7:14? Joseph was told he will call his name Jesus. Isaiah said that they will call his name Immanuel. Jesus means he will save his people from their sins. Immanuel means God with us. So, what is fulfilled? Who is the they in the quoting of Isaiah 7:14? It is the people who are saved from their sins.

And the big point is that the people whose sins Jesus forgives are the ones who will gladly call him God with us.[1] Imagine, these are part of the words that break the silence! It is to know Jesus. Jesus who forgives sins. And he forgives sins because he paid the full punishment for those sins forever at the cross. And the ones who not only know that their sins are forgiven, but know the one who forgives those sins, can gladly and joyfully and restfully say, “He is God with us!”

The last recorded words of Jesus in Matthew are Matthew 28:20. “Behold, I am with you always.” The question for everybody is, do I know the difference Jesus makes? And, how am I knowing the difference Jesus makes? (John 14:23; John 15:1-11; Isaiah 43:2).

[1] D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, page 81.

And His Resting Place Shall Be Glory

The Friday after Thanksgiving has been about leftovers – stuffing leftovers; mashed potato leftovers; gravy leftovers; and turkey leftovers. But in order for my family to enjoy those leftovers one thing must be accomplished. We must find the perfect Sperry family Christmas tree. And to find the perfect Sperry family Christmas tree we travel to Fred’s Christmas Tree Farm. When at Fred’s, it must be a spruce. It can be a white spruce, a blue spruce or a Norway spruce. And to find that spruce, we walk and walk and walk. It is good exercise in preparation for those leftovers. It takes time to find the perfect Sperry family Christmas tree. Some trees are too tall or too short or too bare or too full, with a lot of sap. Then we find it. We always find it. The one tree that is just right.

Once we find the tree that is just right, we take our picture with it, we just always do. And then I cut it down. We drag it back to the car as a family. We watch Lisa tie the tree down to the roof of the car as a family. At home we decorate the tree as a family. We enjoy evenings relaxing in the light of that tree. And on Christmas there will be presents under that tree. But soon thereafter, it will rest bear at the end of the driveway on trash pick-up day.

The only reminder of our perfect family Christmas tree will be a stump back at Fred’s Christmas Tree farm.

The Stump of Jesse

This is the picture of Isaiah 11. But to begin Isaiah 11 and to get the picture of Isaiah 11, it does not begin with verse one, but with Isaiah 10:33-34. These verses read right into Isaiah 11:1. “Behold, the Lord God of hosts will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon will fall by the Majestic One.” And immediately then Isaiah 11:1. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

The picture is that of a Christmas tree farm! There are just rows and rows and rows of reminders of what once was – trees. There once were abundant, full-grown trees. Some were too tall or too short. Some were too bare or too full, with a lot of sap. And now all that remains are reminders – stumps.

Notice the word stump. This particular word is used only three times in the Old Testament. The first time this word occurs is in Job 14:8. Listen carefully for it beginning with verse seven. “For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease.” And just mark this down: there is hope for a tree. Now read verses eight and nine. “Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant.” And just mark this down: there is hope for a tree when all that remains is a stump. What is that hope? It is hope from a stump.

And now get ready for the very next time the word stump occurs. It is Isaiah 11:1 (the third occurrence is Isaiah 40:24). “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

The Tree of Jesse

Notice the words “stump of Jesse.” What is a stump? It is a reminder of a tree. Therefore, the stump of Jesse is a reminder of the tree of Jesse. And what do trees have? Trees have branches. And we want to ask two questions. What is the tree of Jesse? And what are the branches of Jesse?

For this I want us to turn to the Gospel of Matthew. And just notice that the Gospel of Matthew opens with a tree, a family tree. Then notice that this family tree is divided into three sections. Then notice that this first section begins with a man named Abraham (Matthew 1:2). But what is really noteworthy is how the first section of this family tree concludes. It is Matthew 1:6. “and Jesse the father of David the king.”

This family tree continues with the remainder of verse six. “And David was the father of Solomon.” Who was Solomon? He was a king. Then the family tree continues with verse seven. “And Solomon the father of Rehoboam.” If you do not know who Rehoboam was, he was a king. “And Rehoboam the father of Abijah.” If you do not know who Abijah was, he was a king. “And Abijah the father of Asaph.” If you do not know who Asaph was, he was a king. Then the family tree continues. It continues with verse eight and verse nine and verse ten and verse eleven.

There is one verse in particular to point out. It is Matthew 1:9. “And Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz.” If you do not know who Ahaz was, he was a king. He was a king at the time of the writing of Isaiah 11.

The whole point is that Matthew 1:6-11 is the tree of Jesse. And the tree of Jesse had branches and each of those branches were kings. But then something happened. It is included in Matthew 1:11. It is called the deportation to Babylon. Let’s call this deportation to Babylon the cutting down of the tree. And when there is a cutting down of a tree what remains? A reminder; the only reminder is a stump.

But as of Isaiah 11, there was still a tree. But this tree will be cut down and what did Job 14:7-8 tell us? There is hope for a tree when all that remains is a stump. Listen again to Isaiah 11:1. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Where is the hope? It is a branch.

What is this Branch?

The big question is, what is this branch? Keep in mind that the stump of Jesse was once the tree of Jesse. And the tree of Jesse had branches and the branches were kings. Jesse was the father of kings. What possibly then is the branch that comes from the stump of Jesse? A king.

It is interesting that this branch is a branch of the stump and not necessarily just another branch of the former tree. Meaning, this king is not just another king. He will be different. How will he be different? Listen again to Isaiah 11:1. “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” How will this branch, this king be different? He will bear fruit. This is what Isaiah 11:2-10 is all about. It is all about a different king from Jesse who bears fruit. And the next big question is, what is the fruit?

And the Spirit of the Lord Shall Rest Upon Him

I want us to notice the very first few words of verse two. “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” This identical wording is used again in Isaiah 61:1. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has appointed me to bring good news to the poor, he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” Why is this important? Jesus read these very words in a synagogue on the Sabbath day. When he was finished reading these words “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Again, why is this important? Isaiah 61 is talking about the same person as Isaiah 11. It is the king from the stump. A different king from Jesse who bears fruit.

And notice who Isaiah 61:1 affects. It affects people. The poor are people. The brokenhearted are people. The captives are people. The bound are people. And Jesus said in his first coming that he fulfilled those words. The Spirit of the Lord God was upon him. And how did this affect people? He brought good news.

Now back to Isaiah 11:2. “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Notice that verse two is given in pairs – wisdom and understanding; counsel and might; knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The last pair is the only pair that gets broken up in these ten verses.

It happens in the very next verse, Isaiah 11:3. “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” I really like this verse. I find it fascinating and it is because of the word delight. Delight here means to smell with pleasure. The fear of the Lord is not something to run and hide from, instead this king, Jesus, savors it, smells it with pleasure. But it is a lot simpler just to say that his delight is in the fear of the Lord, or his joy is the awe of God, or he trembles at the thought of displeasing God. Just a fascinating statement.

But again, the pair gets broken up. The second half of the pair is in Isaiah 11:9. “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Just interesting that it is the only pair that is broken up and in a sense bookends the passage.

His joy was not to displease God. This was Jesus’ first coming. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). “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” (Hebrews 12:2). And Isaiah 11:9, this is more about Jesus’ second coming. The first half of Isaiah 11:9 is repeated in Isaiah 65:25. And the context there begins with Isaiah 65:17 which is about God creating new heavens and a new earth.

The point is that Isaiah 11:1-10 has in view both the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus with no time lapse. Why is that? Notice that the verses in between are the effects of this king. There is wording there that reflects Isaiah 61 (see 11:4, poor and meek). This king, his presence, his work, his purpose affects even nature (Isaiah 11:6-8). But most importantly this king affects people.

And His Resting Place Shall Be Glory

And this is how it ends. “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” This answers the question, what is his fruit? It is that his resting place shall be glory. His resting place shall be of infinite wonder and infinite beauty and infinite goodness and infinite worth. And this is all in view of his coming. His coming begins with his birth!

On Christmas night, some shepherds were out in some field watching their flocks. They did not know it was Christmas night, not until an angel of the Lord appeared and said, “And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’” And what is the good news? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The birth of Jesus the Christ is good news of great joy for all people. It is also good news that causes great joy for all people. The good news is the branch from this stump. And he preached good news.

He died. He was crucified for our sins. He was buried. And he rose again. He is alive. Death and the grave could not contain him. He is a different kind of king. And he left, but he will return. He is coming again. While we wait for him there are people who have not seen him, but love him and believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. Why is that? It is because the good news has been preached to them (1 Peter 1:8, 12). And by the way, these are poor, brokenhearted, captivated, bound people. See too Romans 15:12-13.

Why do we rejoice now? Because his rest is glory. The invitation to start this advent season is to you. Come to him. He is the branch from the stump of Jesse. He is the king, a different kind of king. He is the Messiah, the Savior, Christ the Lord.

When Faith Faces Death

It was a Sunday morning. I am almost certain it was a Sunday morning and I was eight years old. And I heard a noise that I had never heard before. Someone was crying, but I had never heard anyone cry quite like this. I heard my Mom crying and then I saw my Mom crying. She was distraught and heartbroken. She had received a phone call that her grandmother had died. Grandma Adams was eighty-eight years old. I can remember thinking, “I never want to see anything like this ever again.” But I did; I did see something just like this again. It was my wife. She cried just like this when her dad died. I had no idea what to say. The only thing that I could think to do was to hug her and hold her and let her weep.

And Sarah Died

Abraham’s wife Sarah had died. This is Genesis 23. And when Abraham’s wife Sarah had died, Abraham mourned for her and wept for her (Genesis 23:2). This is the strongest language used to describe a broken heart. The word mourn means to wail. It is an audible word, but it is also intense. The word describes a person pulling at their own hair and beating their chest. Of course, the word weep means to cry; it involves tears. When Abraham’s wife Sarah died, Abraham pulled at his hair, beat his chest, and he wept. Why did Abraham cry like this?

Remembering Sarah

Note carefully Genesis 23:1. “Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” The word-for-word translation of the Hebrew text reads, “And Sarah was a hundred years old and twenty years and seven years.” The emphasis of this introductory verse is that these were the years of the life of Sarah. The really intriguing part of it all is that Sarah is the only woman in the Bible that is given this kind of attention upon her death.

Listen to Isaiah 51:1-2. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you…” You who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord, there is a really simple command which follows: look. Look simply means to stop and pause and take time to think and consider. Look to the rock from which you were hewn. Look to Abraham and do not only look and think and consider the life of Abraham. Look and think and consider the life of Sarah.

I love how the Bible considers the life of Sarah. Remember how Abraham described his wife as a woman beautiful in appearance (Genesis 12:11-12)? In 1 Peter 3:4-6, Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty. It was that of a gentle and quiet spirit. Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty, a beauty of submission. She was submissive to her husband. She was at hand for every pinnacle of Abraham’s life and also there for every one of his failures.[1] Lisa and I are in our eighteenth year of marriage. But this week, it was Tuesday evening, she said the most precious thing to me in our eighteen years. She said, “You do not know this, but I bear your anxieties.” Those words in that moment meant more to me than “I love you.” And it was a moment that I gained a greater understanding of imperishable beauty and submissiveness and what it means to be on hand for the pinnacles and the failures. I bear your anxieties.

Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty, a beauty of doing good. Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty, a beauty that does not fear anything that is frightening. Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty, a beauty of a holy woman who hopes in God. Hebrews 11:11 further remembered Sarah as a woman who lived by faith. What does it mean to live by faith? “She considered him faithful who had promised.” Therefore, Sarah is remembered as a woman of imperishable beauty, a beauty that considers God faithful.

It is a beauty that the Bible calls very precious in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:4). This was Abraham’s wife. And so, why did Abraham cry like this? Could it be that he is simply remembering his beautiful wife?

Keep considering Genesis 23:1. And be sure to note carefully Genesis 23:1.  Be sure to note carefully that Sarah is the only woman in the Bible that is given this emphasis: Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of Sarah’s life. Sarah died when she was 127 years old. We do not know how many years of marriage Abraham and Sarah celebrated. It must had been nearly a hundred years, maybe even more. But we do know something more important than their wedding anniversary. We know when their journey began.

Genesis 12 was sixty-two years ago. Abraham was seventy-five years old. Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham, which means in Genesis 12 she was sixty-five years old. Genesis 12 is when their journey began. It was when God called out to Abraham to leave his father’s house to a land that God would show him. So, Abraham went not knowing where he was going, and his wife went with him. Genesis 12 was the beginning of their journey of faith together. It was more important than their wedding anniversary.

I was recently talking with a couple that has been married for a little more than thirty years. The wife said that it has been the last seven though which have been the sweetest. I asked why that was, why she felt that way. She said, “It is because these last seven years are the years we have grown in our walk with God together.” Why was Abraham crying like this? Could it be simply that he was remembering his beautiful wife and perhaps how the last sixty-two years had been the sweetest? One of the last words ever recorded of Sarah is: God has prepared laughter for me. And maybe it was the last thirty-seven that had been the sweetest of all.

And Abraham Rose Up

Sarah lived. Sarah died. Abraham mourned and wept and then he rose up (23:3). He rose up seeking to now bury his wife. Notice quickly verse two. “And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” Note this verse and we will come back to it.  But the point is that Sarah died in the land of Canaan, a part of the land that is inhabited by the Hittites or probably more accurately the sons of Heth or Hethites. And in this land Abraham is a sojourner and a foreigner. Specifically, Abraham legally, in the eyes of the land, had no ownership rights. He owned no land. And he sought a place to bury his deceased wife.

This is the majority of the rest of the chapter. Abraham bartered with the inhabitants of the land for a burial spot. These inhabitants were more than happy to accommodate Abraham’s need, but it seems that they did not understand what Abraham was seeking. It seems that the inhabitants of the land were more than happy and more than willing to loan a burial spot to Abraham. In their minds, there was no reason to withhold a gravesite to this man whom they admired and respected (Genesis 23:4-6).

But Abraham sought to purchase a grave, a cave. He sought to purchase a cave in the sight of the inhabitants of the land so that there would be no confusion. Abraham a sojourner and a foreigner owns this burial spot. And he had the spot in mind – the cave of Machpelah, owned by a man called Ephron (23:7-9). And Abraham was willing to pay full price.

This man called Ephron seems to be present when Abraham announced his desire for this cave. And it seems that Ephron as kindly and as compassionate as can be, took full advantage of this opportunity. He was willing to sell, but not just the cave. He was willing to sell the field with the cave that was in it, including all the trees of the field too. And he was willing to sell for four hundred shekels of silver (ten pounds of silver). Of which Ephron said, “What is that between friends?” (23:15).

This was all done in the presence of witnesses. I want us to notice verse seventeen and verse twenty. This cave in this field with all the trees was “made over” or deeded to Abraham as his legal possession. For the first time in sixty-two years, Abraham owned a piece of land. And where did he own this piece of land? Listen to verse nineteen. “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.”

When Faith Faces Death

Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the land of Canaan and in a particular place in the land of Canaan – Hebron. Go back to verse one. Where did Sarah die? “And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” Why did she die in the land of Canaan at Hebron?

Kiriath-arba means “the city of four” and there are many educated guesses as to why it is called Kiriath-arba. But Moses takes the time to let the reader know that this is also known as Hebron in the land of Canaan. The last mention of Hebron was the first mention of Hebron – Genesis 13:18. After living at Hebron for some time, Abraham moved. We do not know exactly why he moved, but he moved and his wife with him. He moved sometime after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He looked at the destruction of those cities and moved toward the territory of the Negeb and sojourned in Gerar. There he lived and there he told a lie. There his and Sarah’s son Isaac was born. There Isaac had his first birthday party. From there Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael were sent packing. There Abraham dug a well for himself. There that same well was taken from him. There that same well was returned to him as legally his well. From there Abraham would offer Isaac as a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Moriah, knowing that God would provide. And from there Abraham, Sarah and Isaac would live at a place not called Hebron, but called Beersheba.

But at some point, and for some reason, Sarah died not in a place called Beersheba, but in Hebron. These two places are separated by about thirty miles. Why did this family end up back at Hebron? Why did they apparently move again?

Last week we completely ignored Genesis 21:15-18. It was something God said to Abraham following the offering of Isaac. God reiterated the promise to Abraham that began in Genesis 12 and was stated again in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 18. It was about Abraham’s offspring, his descendants. Abraham would one day have so many descendants that they would number the sand of the seashore. Where would Abraham have these descendants? In the land of Canaan. Abraham heard this promise from God one last time and eventually moved back to Hebron. It was here that Abraham would bury his wife. It was in the heart of the land of promise.

The Bible states that by faith Sarah died not receiving the promises. She did not see all of these promised descendants. She died not seeing the fulfillment of even possessing the land of the promise. She died owning nothing. So, what was the point of buying that cave? Why was Abraham so adamant that he have that cave? It is called what to do when your faith faces death. You consider God faithful who promised. Abraham buried his wife in the promises of God. When Job in faith faced suffering and the possibility of death, he too considered God faithful who promised. Job said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:25-26). And it is all because of Christ Jesus, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

When faith faces death, consider God faithful who promised.

The biggest question for me in this passage though was, where was Isaac? His mom died. Where was he? I do not think he was absent. I just think he is not mentioned. And it struck me for one reason: Isaac was 37 years old when his mom died. I am 37 years old. This is not to say that I think my Mom will die anytime soon. But I just tend think that Isaac at 37 years old was watching his mom and dad as their faith faced death. And this 37-year-old, me, needed this week to watch how faith faces death and really for just one reason, and it is not only when facing death, but when you are facing whether or not to carry on. Consider God faithful who promised.

[1] R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing, page 307.

The Lord Will Provide

When I was in high school, sociology and psychology were required classes. A student was required to take only one of those classes junior year or senior year. I took both. I took sociology my junior year and psychology my senior year. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed those classes because I enjoyed the teacher, Mr. Gibeaut. He taught using no notes. He told the best stories. And he rarely gave homework, if ever. But he gave tests. There was nothing special about his tests. Each test was a typical test – short answer; true/false; matching; fill in the blank and multiple choice. But question number ten on every test demanded special attention. It was always multiple choice. And it was always the same answer – C. Once graded, tests would be returned and Mr. Gibeaut would take class time to review each and every question, especially question number ten.  There would come a short pause accompanied by a slight smile. Then Mr. Gibeaut would say, “And ten…is C. Ten is C! Just like the state, Tennessee.”

God Tested Abraham

Genesis 22 is a test. There is no short answer; no true/false; no matching; no fill in the blank; no multiple choice. There is no question number ten. It is not a driving test; hearing test; sight test; pregnancy test; sobriety test. It is not an aptitude test or compatibility test or durability test. It is not even a taste test. What is this test?

Listen to Genesis 22:1. “After these things God tested Abraham.” Notice the word tested. This is the only time this word occurs in Genesis. This is going to seem really obvious, but who is being tested? Abraham. So, this is the only time this word occurs in Genesis and the individual to be tested is Abraham.

Keep that in mind and notice the first few words that introduce the chapter. “After these things God tested Abraham.” So, this is the only time the word tested occurs in Genesis and the individual to be tested is Abraham. But he is only tested after these things. What things? The word after is a key word. After these things God tested Abraham. So, to know what after is referring to, it is probably best to know what is before. What happened before God tested Abraham?

Notice that the word things is plural. So, the better question is what things happened before God tested Abraham? Before Genesis 22 is Genesis 21. Things happened in Genesis 21, three things. First, Isaac was born. Second, Abraham sent Hagar away with Ishmael, Abraham’s son, into the wilderness. They got lost in the wilderness.

After these things God tested Abraham. Why is Abraham being tested now? Why is Abraham being tested after those things? The Hebrew text literally begins this way: And it came to pass after these things… The New International translation picks up on this and begins verse one “Some time later…” There it is; it is not just after these things, which surely includes Genesis 21, but there was some time that past after these things. How much time? Isaac is in Genesis 21. He was born in Genesis 21 and had a birthday party in Genesis 21 when he was about two or three years old. Isaac is also in Genesis 22.

In Genesis 22:12, Isaac is a called a boy. In Genesis 21:18, Ishmael is also called a boy. In Hebrew it is a different word than for child (21:8). The short definition for boy is man. In Genesis 21, Ishmael is about fifteen or sixteen years old. How old then could Isaac be in Genesis 22? The point is that Genesis 22 is some time later after these things. How much time later? It is about fifteen to sixteen years later.

Charles Spurgeon had this insight. There was a course of education to prepare him for this great testing time, and the Lord knows how to educate us up to such a point that we can endure, in years to come, what we could not endure today – just as today he may make us stand firm under a burden, which ten years ago, would have crushed us into the dust.

Three things happened in Genesis 21. Third, Abraham made a new friend and got a little help from his friend securing a well of water. This third thing that happened was described as humdrum. In other words, boring. This third thing was about a boring, humdrum, mundane day. Some fifteen years after this particular day, God tested Abraham. Why does that matter? We mentioned last week that our lives are made up of days. The average life expectance today is 78.7 years or 28,725 days. How many of those days will be boring or mundane? A lot. The last thing that happened before Genesis 22 was a mundane day. God was at work in that mundane day. Do not miss the splendor of God in mundane things on mundane days. The point is that it may be the course of education to prepare you for a great testing time.

And think on this: Abraham was over a hundred years old. After these things, after all this time, God tested an old man, a really old man. And for what reason? What is being tested?

Please Take Your Son

It begins with Genesis 22:2. “Take your son…” The word take is a command. Actually, there are three commands in verse two. Take; go; offer. But the first command begins softly. Some translations include the word now. Take now your son. The word now literally means please – please take your son. It begins softly and then increases in intensity. Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, the son of your affection, and go.

God commands Abraham to take Isaac and go to the land of Moriah. Moriah is only used one other time in the Old Testament – 2 Chronicles 3:1. There it is called Mount Moriah in Jerusalem and it is the place where King Solomon would build the temple, the house of the Lord. God commands Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and notice where exactly in the land of Moriah. “On one of the mountains of which I will show you.”

And then it gets hard. It gets hard to read. How hard must it have been to hear? “Offer him there as a burnt offering.” Isaac was to die as a sacrifice…by the hands of his own father. So, what is being tested?

When Will It Be Over?

So Abraham got up early the next morning, prepared his donkey, cut the needed wooded, took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac (22:3). The big point though that I want to make is in verse four. “On the third day…” Abraham traveled and traveled and traveled for three days thinking about his son who was to be offered as a sacrifice by his own hand. Again, what is being tested?

Ask Dad, He Knows. Those words are a part of an advertisement in the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. So, I asked my Dad. I asked him about testing. Testing usually always involves something difficult or hard. And my Dad shared that the big issue about testing is not how hard or difficult it may be, or how big or how dark the testing may be, but how long, the duration. How long will this test last? It was three days, three long arduous days. And for three days there was just one question. When will it be over? “On the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar.” It was about to be over.

Isaac Breaks the Silence

For most of this trip there was silence. There was silence until Abraham saw the place. Listen to Genesis 22:5. “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” Pause here for a moment and ask, what is being tested? Then there was silence again. Abraham took the wood and placed it on his son. Isaac had to carry the wood for the offering. Abraham grabbed the knife and the fire. Listen to how verse six ends. “So they went both of them together.” Father and son. And there was silence.

And then Isaac broke the silence. “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Listen to verse eight. “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” What is being tested? For now, highlight the word provide. Then read again, “So they went both of them together.” Father and son. And there was silence.

God Breaks the Silence

Father and son come to the place of sacrifice; a mountain of Moriah. Abraham builds the altar, arranges the wood and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar. Father and son. And there was silence. No one said a word, not even Isaac. It makes you wonder, why did Isaac not say a word? Remember the last thing he heard his father say? “God will provide for himself the lamb.” What is being tested? Abraham reached out his hand – he must have looked at his hand – and took the knife – he must have looked at the knife in his hand – to slaughter his son – he must have looked at his son – and God broke the silence. “Abraham! Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12). Now pay careful attention to Genesis 22:13. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.” Highlight the word looked.

The Lord Will Provide

And pay even closer attention to Genesis 22:14. “So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’ The word provide is the same word for provide in verse eight. It is also the same word for looked too. It means to see. But it gets better. It is the same word for saw in verse four. And it gets even better. It means not just to see, but to see to it. Abraham first saw and then said, “God will see to it” (Genesis 22:4, 8). Then Abraham looked and said, “God saw to it!” (Genesis 22:13, 14).

What was being tested? Abraham was known for his faith. I think Job 23:10 is helpful. “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.” What was being tested? His faith. And for what purpose? To purify it, that it may come out as gold, even more precious than gold. And what did it? God will see to it.

We get the word providence from the word provide. And providence is all about that God will see to it. God will sustain. God will take care of it. And when he does, there is just one thing to say, “God saw to it!”

It is the one thing to grab tightly to as if your life depends on it in any hardship, any difficulty, any storm. God will see to it. Do you know how you can know that God will see to it? It is because he already has. God has already saw to it.

This land called Moriah is the same place where a cross of wood would be laid on the back of Jesus. It is the same place Jesus would be nailed to that cross of wood. It is the same place he would be silent. It is the same place he would break the silence with “It is finished.” It is the same place that the lamb of God would take away the sins of the world. And it is the same place that after three days the grave could no longer contain him.

 

The Calm After the Storm

Roger Taylor had a plan for retirement. It was not to sell his house in Strongsville, Ohio – which he did. It was not to move to the country – which he did. It was not to purchase a small portion of farm land – which he did. It was not to build a house – which he did. Roger Taylor’s plan for retirement was to plant trees – which he did. He planted a row of pine of trees alongside his driveway. He then planted more pine trees, rows and rows of pine trees to serve as Christmas trees. He also planted shade trees. And it was all very strategic. It was all mapped out in his mind where these shade trees would grow and how they would grow and how they would be enjoyed twenty, thirty years later. And he envisioned picnics. He envisioned his friends and family at those picnics sitting under those trees. But most importantly, Roger envisioned Roger sitting under those trees with a smile on his face.

Roger Taylor planted particular trees for particular reasons. It was one of the first things he ever told me on the first day I met him when I first started dating his daughter Lisa.

Abraham Planted a Tree

Genesis 21:22-34 has been described as “a period of fairly humdrum activity.”[1] Do you know what humdrum means? It means boring. These thirteen verses have been described as boring. And it is simply because not much happens. King Abimelech sends a friend request to Abraham and Abraham accepts (21:22-24). Abraham then asks his new friend for some help in a small matter and Abimelech obliges (Genesis 21:25-27). The two friends then shake hands and return to their homes (Genesis 21:28-32).

But Abraham planted a tree. And he planted a tree not just in a passage where not much happened, but on a day when not much happened. Carefully pay attention to Genesis 21:33. “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” Abraham planted a tree. This almost never happens in Genesis. The word planted occurs only three times in Genesis. The first time is when God planted a garden (Genesis 2:8). The second time is when Noah planted a vineyard (Genesis 9:20). And the third time is when Abraham planted a tree. And when this word occurs it is about something particular.

Why Did Abraham Plant a Tree?

Why did Abraham plant a tree? It is about a well of water; a well Abraham had dug and was taken from him. Listen to Genesis 21:25. “When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water…” After Abraham accepted Abimelech’s friend request he reproved him! Another word for reprove would be rebuke or correct. Some translations have the word complained. After Abraham accepted Abimelech’s friend request he complained to him! But the way this word is constructed suggests that Abraham complained several times. After Abraham accepted Abimelech’s friend request he complained and complained and complained to his new friend about this well.

Listen again to Genesis 21:25. “When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized…” Seized means to take by violent force. Abraham had dug a well for his home and his needs and the men of the land who served Abimelech took it, violently. And Abraham said nothing about it until this particular day.

When he mentions this to his new friend there is no arguing, no questions asked, and the matter is settled peacefully (21:26-32). I did wonder though why Abraham did not just dig another well. We need to remember that Abraham is a stranger in this land. Abimelech had invited Abraham to dwell in his land, meaning the land was not Abraham’s but he was a welcomed visitor in it (20:15). The Bible describes this as a sojourner. A sojourner is one that makes a temporary stay and has no ownership rights. So, the men who served Abimelech took a well that did not technically belong to Abraham.

But on this particular day when Abimelech officially gets a new friend, Abraham also gets his well back. His new friend gives him the right to call that well his own (Genesis 21:27). So, it is kind of important because not every sojourner can say that they have their very own well. And what does Abraham then do? He planted a tree.

Where Did Abraham Plant a Tree?

The small point to pay attention to is that Abraham planted a particular tree. Look again at Genesis 21:33. “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” Most translations call this tree a tamarisk tree. Tamarisk trees were native to this region, the Negeb (20:1). It can grow to be about 25 feet tall. And it is also a good shade tree. You can rest under it. But a tamarisk is not only a tree. It is also a bush or shrub. This leads us to a big question: where did Abraham plant this particular tree?

Look again at Genesis 21:33. “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” Where did Abraham plant this particular tree? Beersheba.

A little point of this passage is to tell us how Beersheba got its name. It is composed of two words: beer and sheba. Beer means well and sheba means seven. The well is Abraham’s well that he himself had dug, but it was taken from him. At this well Abraham gave seven ewe lambs to his new friend as a witness that this well was indeed Abraham’s well. Then the two men make a covenant together that they are indeed friends and that this is indeed Abraham’s well and each swear an oath (21:24; 27; 30-31). The word oath or swear (shaba) comes from the word seven (sheba). “Therefore that place was called Beersheba” (21:31). And what does Abraham then do? He planted a tree.

Why Does It Matter?

Why does it matter? Why does the name Beersheba matter? Why does it matter that Abraham planted a tree and planted it there? Now pay attention to Genesis 21:22. “At that time…” Pause there. Those three words are pointing to a particular time. Abraham planted a particular tree in a particular place at a particular time. At what particular time? What time do those three little words refer to?

Turn to Genesis 21:14. This is when Abraham sent Hagar and his son Ishmael away. “So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.” Hagar and Ishmael were lost. Hagar and Ishmael got to a point where all seemed lost. And where was this?

What happened next? Now read Genesis 21:15. “She put the child under one of the bushes.” Hagar put Ishmael under a bush. What kind of bush could this be? A tamarisk bush.

Now listen to Genesis 21:17. It took me two weeks to really understand the significance of this verse. “And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.’” Where was Ishmael? Under a tamarisk bush. And where was this tamarisk bush? In Beersheba. Why is any of this so significant?

The Calm After the Storm

The words “at that time” connect Genesis 21:22-34 with Genesis 21:15-21. And it is not just to connect, but to compare. These two passages are two different kind of days.

There are those days when we are lost, and all seems lost. Let’s call those days storms. It feels like this is the end and there is no end to the storm in sight. This is Genesis 21:15-21 and those verses, for that kind of day, there is verse seventeen. “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” God hears your voice there and so, listen to his voice there. “What troubles you?” This is in the storm! What is going to ease your trouble in the seemingly endless storm? God will do what he says he will do; God will do what he promises he will do; and God will do it in his perfect timing. Therefore, get up.

Then there are those days that are rather humdrum or ordinary. Let’s call those days calm. This is Genesis 21:22-34. Did you notice that Ishmael under the tamarisk bush in Beersheba and Abraham planting a tree in Beersheba both occur in the same chapter? The storm and then the calm. I would like to call these verses, Genesis 21:22-34, the calm after the storm.

We all have these days; the calm days. These days are kind of routine. We get up, get ready, get dressed, get some coffee, get the kids ready, get the kids some coffee, do some work, get the kids, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. And then we do it all over again. And in that kind of day, there are little things, not storms, just little things that kind of matter to us. No one else could really care, but it is like that well. My thought was, why not dig another well? Abraham’s well, to me, was a little thing. And Abraham’s well compared to Ishmael lost and feeling that all was lost, was rather calm. What do we do with those kinds of days? I know what to do for the storm and in the storm. Cry out to God like your life depends on it. Hagar and Ishmael did. God heard their voices right where they were.

But what about the other days? I have a feeling that when our lives are all said and done, and our days are measured, we will have more calm days than storm days. What do we do with the calm, humdrum, rather boring days? Charles Spurgeon had this to say: “The infinite Lord is at home doing little things.”

Did you notice what Abraham did after he planted that particular tree in that particular place? He worshiped. He proclaimed God’s greatness and he called God “the Everlasting God.” Listen to Isaiah 40:28. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

When did Abraham discover that? It was on a calm, humdrum, rather boring day. The greatness of God is to be had in those days too. Abraham planted a particular tree in a particular place for a particular reason. His calm, humdrum, rather boring days were not hidden from God. God was at home doing little things.

There are days of desperation, I get that. But I do not want to miss the splendor of God in the mundane either. It is as simple as daily planting a tree and proclaiming God’s greatness in the calm.

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 2, page 94.

God Has Prepared Laughter for Me

Halloween candy has quickly made its way to the clearance bin and for just one reason: the Christmas candy has come. There are the bags of red and green M & M’s; there are the bags of red and green wrapped miniature Reese cups; and then there are the bags of candy cane Hershey Kisses, all in abundant supply. All of this means that the best time of the year is almost here. And the best time of the year is marked with Christmas music. And the best Christmas music are Christmas hymns, such as Joy to the World.

Yet, Joy to the World is not about Christmas. It is not about Christ’s birth, his first coming. Joy to the World is about his second coming. Joy to the world, the Lord is come! We sing it at Christmas so as to look forward to his coming again. As a new believer a young woman, a mother, was listening intently in the morning service as the pastor shared that Jesus is indeed coming again. Much to her surprise, she blurted out, “He is coming again?!” Everyone turned in their seats, looked at her and laughed. They all laughed at her.

Looking for Laughter

The word laugh is rather important to Genesis 21. I want us to look for it. Look to Genesis 21:3. “Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.” Look to Genesis 21:4. “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac…” Look to Genesis 21:5. “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” Look to Genesis 21:6. “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” Look to Genesis 21:8. “Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.” Look to Genesis 21:9. “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.” Look to Genesis 21:10. “…the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” Look to Genesis 21:12. “…for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

In Genesis 21:1-21, the word laugh is found nine times. It is found either as the name Isaac which means “he laughs,” or as simply as the word laugh, nine times in just the first twelve verses. In the remaining verses, Genesis 21:13-21, the word is never found. But…it is there, laughter is found there. Laughter is the big idea of Genesis 21:1-21. And it begins with an old woman, a mother. Her name was Sarah. She was ninety-years old.

All Who Hear Will Laugh with Me

This old woman, a year earlier, was eavesdropping. When she was eavesdropping she heard God himself tell her husband, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Genesis 18:10). Sarah had but one reaction. She laughed. “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:12). And God had but one response. “Why did Sarah laugh?” (Genesis 18:13).

This old woman was married to an even older man, Abraham. When God had spoken earlier with Abraham about being a dad at one hundred years old and Sarah being a mom at ninety years old, Abraham had but one reaction. He laughed. He laughed so hard that he threw himself to the ground laughing (Genesis 17:17). And God had just one response. “And you shall call his name Isaac,” which we know means “he laughs” (17:19).

This old woman, a year later, gave birth to a son. When she saw her baby boy and heard his name for the first time, she had but one reaction. She laughed. It was not like the year before. No, this year it was different. Why was it different? Why did Sarah laugh, again?

The answer lies in the first two verses of Genesis 21. “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.” A year later, why did Sarah laugh, again? It is because God did what he had said he would do. A year later, why did Sarah laugh, again? It is because God did what he had promised. A year later, why did Sarah laugh, again? It is because God did it when he said he would do it.

Listen to Genesis 21:6. “And Sarah said, ‘God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.’” All who hear will laugh with me! Notice the word hear. It is often translated as listen; to listen attentively, to listen carefully, to listen closely or to listen obediently. And it can mean to listen and understand. All who listen and understand will laugh with me! Hear what? Listen to and understand what? Is it that at ninety she gave birth to a son? Or is there more? There is more. God did what he had said he would do. God did what he had promised. And God did it when he said he would do it.

Sarah is telling us that at ninety is when she finally and really laughed differently. It was joy; and it was so much more than the joy of motherhood. It was God doing what he had said he would do. It was God doing what he had promised. It was God doing it when he said he would do it. And she is telling us that when we get this – God does what he says he will do; God does what he promises; and God does it in his perfect timing – there is laughter for us too. We will laugh with her. This, in these first seven verses, is really important to the rest of the passage.

But Sarah Saw the Son of Hagar

And it starts with Genesis 21:9. “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” Who is Hagar? She was a mom just like Sarah. And she was a mom of a son just like Sarah. Who is the son of Hagar? His name was Ishmael. He is the son of Abraham. And when Sarah saw Ishmael he was laughing. There are two questions. When was Ishmael laughing and why was Ishmael laughing?

Notice verse eight. When Isaac was about two or three years old, which would make Ishmael fifteen to sixteen years old (cf. 17:25), Abraham put on a celebration. In Abraham’s day, infant mortality was so high that to reach the age of two or three was quite an achievement.[1] And as they were celebrating, Sarah saw Ishmael laughing. Why was he laughing?

The word laughing here is grammatically constructed in such a way so as to indicate mocking (cf. Genesis 18:14). Would Ishmael be mocking this celebration? If so, why? It seems cruel, mean and wrong. But the word laughing is also grammatically constructed in such a way so as to indicate “to play with.” Who would Ishmael be playing with? It would seem that he would be playing with his little brother Isaac. And if so, what does it matter?

Listen to verse ten. “So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son.’” And pay attention to Sarah’s reasoning. “For the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” There is something about this laughing that Sarah did not like. Could it be as innocent as Ishmael was playing with his little brother? Maybe. These are the two sons of Abraham. And God has made promises to and about both sons (cf. Genesis 17:20). Yet, only one is the son of the promise (cf. Genesis 17:1-21). Only one son is the heir – Isaac. So as to make and keep this abundantly clear, Sarah demands “cast out this slave woman with her son.”

I like how the NIV translates it: Get rid of them! This captures the intense harshness of this word. And Abraham thought it was intensely harsh. “And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son” (Genesis 21:11). Abraham found this to be cruel, mean and wrong. But listen to verse twelve. It begins with two of the most important words in the Bible. “But God said to Abraham, ‘Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.’” Listen to what God is saying. Do not think this cruel, mean and wrong. Instead, do it. God is telling him to banish his son and Hagar. Why God?

So, Abraham gave Hagar bread and a big jug of water and sent her and Ishmael away.

And God Heard the Son of Hagar

I want us to remember that the following verses involve a mom, Hagar, and her son Ishmael…just like the previous verses. Genesis 21:1-12 involved a mom, Sarah, and her son Isaac. And in those verses, there was laughter. We want to ask, where is the laughter in the following verses? Sarah told us that when we get that God does what he says he will do; that God does what he promises; and that God does it in his perfect timing – there will be laughter. So, where is it in the following verses?

Listen to the end of Genesis 21:14. “she departed and wandered in the wilderness.” Hagar and Ishmael were lost. They were wandering in the wilderness! And not only were Hagar and Ishmael lost, but all seemed lost. The water was gone! Listen to Genesis 21:15b-16. “She put [to throw or fling] the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘Let me not look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.” Hagar and Ishmael sat on the edge of despair. And who ultimately told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away? God did. Why?

Genesis 21:17 is my favorite verse. In these twenty-one verses Ishmael’s name is never mentioned. No one ever calls him by name. He is either called son or child or boy, but never just Ishmael until verse seventeen. Remember, Ishmael’s name means “God hears.” And verse seventeen reads, “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This verse contains the two Hebrew words used to spell Ishmael’s name.

And God sent an angel in his perfect timing to say to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar?” Remember, Hagar and Ishmael were lost, all seemed lost, there was no water and they sat on the edge of despair. And God asked, “What troubles you?” I wonder where Hagar could begin. How about here: “We are lost. All seems lost. There is no water. And we are sitting on the edge of despair.” Why would God ask such a question?

God Has Prepared Laughter for Me

Listen to verse eighteen. “Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” I just love that picture of a mom holding her boy fast with her hand. And listen to verse nineteen. “The God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy.”

In verse six, when Sarah realized that God does what he says he will do; he does what he promises he will do; and he will do it in his perfect timing, she then said, “God has made laughter for me.” The illustration of this is first with a mother and her son (Genesis 21:1-7) and then again with a mother and her son (Genesis 21:13-21). God has prepared laughter for me when all seems impossible – that is Sarah. God has prepared laughter for me when all seems lost and even when left sitting on the edge of despair – that is Hagar. God is in charge of the impossible. God is in charge even on the edge of despair. And God has prepared laughter for me! And where do we find it? God does what he says he will do; God does what he promises he will do; and God will do it in his perfect timing.

[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, volume 2, page 81.