A couple of weeks representatives from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have won a fight they began 20 years ago. Britain’s Natural History Museum has finally agreed to hand over the remains of a number of aborigines taken from Tasmania in the 1880’s.
They’re trying to stop the museums doing scientific testing, including drilling into bones and teeth for DNA testing, as well as making plaster casts of teeth and jaws.
One of them said “”Testing is culturally offensive to us; we see that for us to lay our old fellas and their spirits to rest, we need to bring them back intact without this experimentation,”
To some, it might seem like a lot of fuss over where bones are going to be kept. But, for many cultures, WHERE YOU’RE BURIED IS HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT.
You might remember a couple of years ago, Yasser Arafat died – the leader of the Palestine people. They’ve been fighting with Israel over the same stretch of land on the West Bank for decades.
And when he died, both sides wanted him buried in different places. And so there was no way in the world Israel was going to let Arafat be buried in Jerusalem. Which was the first request. Because it’s loaded with implications of ownership.
And there was no way in the world the Palestinians were going to let Arafat be buried down in Egypt. Which was an Israeli suggestion. Which is loaded with implications of dispossession.
In the end, he was buried in the bombed-out compound in Ramallah on the West Bank. Where he’d been confined to by the Israelis for the previous 2 ½ years. He was covered with soil taken from a mosque in Jerusalem – which is where the Palestinians, one day, want him to be buried. Obviously the Israelis aren’t keen on THAT idea. All very significant.
A whole lot of effort and argument about where to dig a hole in the ground. All spent on deciding A SPOT FOR A PLOT.
It seems a bit foreign to us, but that’s exactly the sort of situation we’ve got here in Gen 23. Arguing over a burial plot in very much the same part of the world.
It’s a story loaded with SUBTLETIES. Loaded with politics. But above everything else, in the case of Abraham, loaded with FAITH IN THE PROMISES OF GOD.
Let’s skim through it, then come back and think through some implications.
We’re dropping into Abraham’s family at a very sad time. (Ch 23 v1 and 2) His son Isaac’s all grown up. He’s 37. The world’s at his feet. But Sarah’s just died in the land of Canaan at the ripe old age of 127.
And heart-broken Abraham goes to mourn for her, and weep over her lifeless body.
But then he gets up. Because there’s arrangements to be made. He heads into town to organise the burial. And, even though burials in those days were fairly simple – no need to organise everything you need today- for Abraham there’s still a giant barrier in the way. A huge hurdle.
You see, even though God’s promised to bless him with the WHOLE LAND of CANAAN. And even though it’s been more than 60 years since the promise was MADE, since Abraham travelled all the way from Ur… Abraham’s yet to SEE any of that. He LIVES in the land, but he doesn’t own a square INCH – not even enough to bury his wife.
So he heads into town. Kiriath Arba. To the city gate. Where all the business deals went down. Perhaps it was a bit like the local pub. And he makes the announcement you can see in v4.
4 “I am an alien and a stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
Well, here’s where it starts. An incredible scene of middle eastern BACKWARD bartering. Normally you go into a marketplace and ask the price. The seller starts with ONE price. That’s HIGH. Normally WAY more than he actually EXPECTS for it. The buyer starts really LOW. And so it goes back and forth until they meet in the middle.
But notice here, it’s the REVERSE. They say, “Look, take the video camera and the widescreen TV for nothing. It’s a gift. He says, No, I want to pay twice the price on the ticket.
Abraham says, sell me a burial plot. Verse 5 and 6, look what the Hittites say back to him. They say, “Sir, listen to us. You’re a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
Well, Abraham’s got the perfect spot in mind. And in a few minutes time you’ll see why it’s so special. But he’s not going to take it as a gift. He bows down to them, and he says to them in verse 8, “If you’re willing to let me bury my dead, then talk to Ephron; ask him to sell me the cave down the end of his paddock, the cave of Machpelah. Ask him to sell it to me AT THE FULL PRICE so I can use it as a burial site.”
If you’re a haggler yourself, you’ll be scratching your head. You’ve never heard anything LIKE it. “Don’t GIVE it to me. Ask him to SELL it to me AT THE FULL PRICE”. Not even a discount.
Now as it happens, Ephron the Hittite’s there in the crowd. And, in verse 11, and he says “No my Lord; listen to me. I GIVE you the FIELD; AND I give you the CAVE THAT’S IN IT. I GIVE it to you in the presence of my people. Go and bury your dead.”
An offer too good to refuse. Ephron’s saying “Go on… take it – it’s yours. What’s more – Not just the CAVE – I’ll throw in the FIELD as well.
Incredible. Here’s a buyer who wants to pay full price. And a seller who wants to give it away.
Abraham must be crazy! In verse 12, he bows down in front of the people again, and he says to Ephron in their hearing, he says “Listen to me, if you will; I’ll pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.” Stop arguing, name your price and I’ll pay it.
Well, at this point Ephron makes the most of the situation. He says, well, if you insist, I reckon it’s worth about 400 shekels of silver. Which is the equivalent of the cost of a Point Piper mansion for a house in Blacktown. There’s a verse in Jeremiah, maybe 500 years later, about buying a field for SEVENTEEN shekels of silver. And Ephron wants Abraham to pay 400!
But here’s what’s even MORE incredible. Abraham PAYS it. Verse 16, he weighs out nearly five kilos of silver; and he pays him. And it says in Verse 17,
“So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it and all the trees within the borders of the field – was all legally made over to Abraham in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city.”
And finally, Abraham lays Sarah to rest. In the field that he’s bought at an incredible price. When he could have just had it for nothing.
(pause) Now the question is, what are we meant to MAKE of what we’ve just read? What’s so significant about this little real estate transaction that makes it worth spending a whole chapter talking about it?
I want to suggest it’s exactly the same theme we’ve been looking all the way through. THE PROMISES OF GOD. And when you look at things THAT way, it all starts to make sense. Even Abraham’s crazy way of doing business.
The last couple of weeks we’ve been focussed on God’s promises of DESCENDANTS. And how THAT come true. Against all the odds, Isaac was born.
But TODAY’S story is to do with one of the OTHER promises. The promise of LAND. A country to live in. Keeping in mind the story we’ve just looked at, jump back to Ch 13, because that’s where God spells it all out.
Genesis 13 from verse 14.
And the Lord says to Abram after Lot has parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look to north and south, east and west. ALL THE LAND THAT YOU SEE I WILL GIVE TO YOU AND YOUR OFFSPRING FOR EVER.”
Go for a walk. Walk right through the land and check it out. Because it’s all going to be yours. I’m giving it to you. So Abraham moves his tents, it says in verse 18, and went to live NEAR THE GREAT TREES OF MAMRE AT HEBRON, where he built an altar to the Lord.
And then, if you flick over to the start of Ch 18, you can see Abraham’s back in the same place. Plenty more years had passed, and he’d probably travelled around all over the place. But here in v1 of Ch 18, the same spot becomes the sight of another significant meeting with God.
18:1 The LORD appeared to Abraham NEAR THE GREAT TREES OF MAMRE while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.
And as we read on (v10), we see that it’s here – right among the trees at Mamre – that God promises ONCE MORE
“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife WILL HAVE A SON.”
The special spot where God makes great promises. Now come back with me to chapter 23. Because I want you to notice something important. That was years ago that God made the promise. Decades. A lot of water’s gone under the bridge.
But the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, is exactly where Abraham buries Sarah. See it in verse 19? It says, “Afterwards, Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near MAMRE, WHICH IS AT HEBRON, in the land of Canaan.” Exactly the same place.
This is the promised land. And the EXACT SPOT where the promise was made. And at the end of Sarah’s life, that’s the spot he wants. Abraham’s rich. He’s got cattle. He’s got silver. But he’s still got no stake in the promised land. And so, if he’s going to own ANY land, that’s the block he wants.
Which may of course explain the arguments. They want to GIVE it to him. But Abraham insists on paying top dollar for it. Because there’s no way he’s going to start giving people bragging rights – saying they gave Abraham his first start.
Back in Ch 14, he refused any gifts the king of Sodom was offering him because he said, “I won’t accept anything so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abraham rich’”.
In other words, “Let the history books record, when Abraham takes his first stake in the promised land, it’s not because of the charity of the Hittites”.
You see, he’s TRUSTING God’s promises. And relying completely on him. He can’t see it YET, but he knows God’s good for it. This block is JUST THE BEGINNING. The foot in the door. Dipping his toe in the water.
And so he’ll stake his claim. NO MATTER WHAT IT COSTS.
You might remember a number of years ago Landcom used to release for sale new blocks of land for housing. And they’d set A PRICE, and they’d set A DATE when they’d go on sale.
And people used to camp out for WEEKS BEFORE on THEIR block of land. So they could be first in line to buy it. (These days they just auction it to whoever’s got the most money.) But back then, it was a test of your DETERMINATION and your PATIENCE, rather than how much money you had.
We knew someone who camped out FOR A WEEK to get a beautiful block of land at Illawong. Set up nice and high, looking up the Georges river towards the city.
They pitched their tent, brought along their airbeds and sleeping bags. And they staked their claim. Confident that this was where they wanted to build a life.
And they got it. And they built a beautiful house on it. And every afternoon as they sat out on their verandah, the memories of the uncomfortable week camping fades away. It was a small price to pay for what they ended up with.
And Abraham’s doing the same. Staking his claim that his future is here in Canaan. He might only own one paddock. But he knows there’s more coming. Because God’s promised it.
Two weddings and two funerals.
And the next chapter makes the same point. Ch 24. It’s time for Abraham to find Isaac a wife. We’ve had the funeral, now it’s time for the wedding. In fact, by the time we get to the end of Ch 25, we’ve had TWO weddings and TWO funerals.
But here in Ch 24, there’s the detailed story of the servant sent back to the homeland. To find the right girl. And bring her back. Quite romantic really!
And before he goes, the servant says, Well, what about I take Isaac back there to live? To which Abraham says, No way. The boy stays here. Why? Because it’s the land God promised. And Abraham’s committed himself. Chapter 24 Verse 6;
Make sure that YOU DO NOT TAKE MY SON BACK THERE. The Lord, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I WILL GIVE THIS LAND’ – he’ll send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.
Which God does. And Rebekah is ready and waiting. And she comes back to the Promised Land, meets Isaac, and they’re married. And so they begin the next generation that will grow up in the land. The land God PROMISED.
Which brings us to Ch 25. Where we read that ABRAHAM marries TOO, and has plenty more kids. Each of them grow into a nation on their own. That’s the SECOND marriage.
And then he dies. V7. 175 years old. And we get our second FUNERAL.
8 Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre , in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, 10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
Right on the spot where God had promised it all to him. A whole COUNTRY, and yet Abraham never saw it all. He died on the only bit of ground God had delivered on. And he even had to buy THAT with his own money.
He died waiting to see the fulfilment of God’s promises. But he died CONFIDENT that God would still deliver EVEN after HE DIED.
God’s promises are not exhausted in this lifetime
Which is where it gets relevant for US.
Because for EVERY believer GOD’S PROMISES ARE NOT EXHAUSTED IN THIS LIFETIME. Just like Abraham, God PROMISES TO DO FAR MORE FOR US THAN WHAT WE RECEIVE IN THIS LIFE.
Let me show you what I mean. And then we’ll think about some applications. Turn over to Heb 11. We’ve looked at different parts of it this chapter over the last few weeks. But today I want to focus from v13.
It’s just finished describing how Abraham and his family had lived by faith through his life. And then it says.
13 All these people were still living by faith when they DIED. THEY DID NOT RECEIVE THE THINGS PROMISED; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.
In other words, they died EXPECTING MORE from God’s promises. It goes on
And they admitted that they were ALIENS AND STRANGERS on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country-A HEAVENLY ONE. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Abraham’s confident investment in that little block of land was a sign of trust in God’s goodness. Even though he knew he was going to die, and OTHERS would see the fruit of his trust.
And, as his reward, we read that God is NOT ASHAMED to be called his God, and he’s prepared an ETERNAL, PERFECT and HEAVENLY city for him.
Which is exactly the same city he’s prepared for each one of US.
(pause) If Abraham could say ONE THING to you, based on this chapter, it would be this. “SPEND UP BIG ON THE THINGS THAT WILL LAST. BECAUSE YOU TRUST GOD’S PROMISES. PROMISES THAT REACH BEYOND THIS LIFE.
This world ISN’T home. You’re just a stranger, a resident alien. On a tourist visa. Your home is ETERNITY. With God. So don’t get too comfortable. Don’t put down roots here. Don’t spend a fortune on things that won’t last. Invest in the things of eternity.
Every week we print at the bottom of our newsletter one of our CORE VALUES. The things we VALUE as a church. The things of ETERNITY. Things that LAST.
This week it’s PRAYER. Last week it said “We value God’s people … ENCOURAGING AND LOVING EACH OTHER.”
Is that something YOU value? What are you willing TO SPEND to encourage and love others.
Let me put it bluntly. In the past few weeks, I’ve written letters, and spoken to, 9 people who just recently, or sometime in the last year, have all decided to stop coming to church here. For a number of them, it was simply because they didn’t feel WELCOME. There were no relationships waiting for them at church that would encourage them to get out of bed on Sunday morning.
Lynette Whitten. Angela Slater. Catherine and Wade Reynolds. Brett and Helen Deacon. Andrea Lazarus. Yvonne Smith.
Do you KNOW these people? (Lynette and Angela haven’t been for well over a year). I’m amazed when I talk to people, and mention someone else at church. And they don’t know who I’m talking about. They’ve never MET them. People – that’s not good enough. Don’t just stick in your own group. Make the EFFORT. If someone’s not here for a couple of weeks – PHONE them. Let them know you MISSED them.
Let’s not lose anyone ELSE that way. Spend up BIG.
- Spend your TIME on building friendships for Jesus, rather than building your retirement options. Growing your church, rather than growing your garden. Training others in godliness, rather than training them to kick a footy.
- Spend your MONEY on ministry rather than motorcars. On encouraging others, rather than ebay. On evangelism, rather than Europe. On missionaries, rather than microwaves.
- Spend your EVENINGS reading the Bible and praying with your family, rather than playing the Playstation, or chatting on msn messenger.
- Spend your evenings reading Christian biographies, rather than Who Weekly. Writing letters and phoning friends, rather than doing crosswords or watching a Simpsons repeat. Going to HOME GROUP, rather than going to bed with a Robert Ludlum book.
People who live making those sorts of costly decisions/ show their confidence in the eternal promises of God. And it’s people like that of whom God has PROMSIED, “I am not ashamed to be their God. I’ve prepared a city for them. An eternal, heavenly country.”
And isn’t that worth spending EVERYTHING to receive?
- Work for the APPROVAL OF JESUS, and don’t be concerned about the approval of others. Isn’t eternal life worth the risk of losing a friendship, or hurting someone’s feelings? Isn’t it worth more than a promotion? Or a winning a popularity contest?