************ Sermon on Genesis 23:4 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 6, 2002
"Aliens and Strangers"
I Sarah's Death and Burial
A We notice that there has been a death – the death of Sarah, the dear wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. Scripture does not try to gloss over this death. It doesn't use euphemisms to describe what happened; it doesn't try to surround an ugly thing with pleasant or beautiful words. Sarah died, says the Bible. In fact, the words "dead" and "bury" and variations of these words occur 22 times in the passage in front of us. Sarah has been called from this life. The place that knew her, knows her no more. She was made of dust and to dust she will now return.
B We are told about the tears. As was the custom back then, Abraham sat by Sarah's head and wept and mourned for her. Of course he mourned for her – after all, she was his wife, his sister, his lover, his friend; she bore his son; she fought his battles; she knew his struggles. Our Scripture reading doesn't say anything about the grief of Isaac, but we know he was comforted after his mother's death only when he married Rebekah and she became his wife and he loved her (Gen 24:67). So he too missed Sarah and cried about her loss – after all, she was his mother; she gave birth to him and nursed him and changed his diapers; she kissed him when he skinned his knees and elbows; she prepared his food and mended his clothes and rejoiced in his growth and maturity and development.
There are some Christians who dare to suggest that great sorrow over the death of a loved one shows a lack of faith and hope in the Lord's promise of eternal life and the resurrection of the body. Such people forget that God created us to live on this earth forever. They forget that death is an awful intruder that came on the scene only because of sin. They forget that death is the final enemy we face in this life and in this flesh – and, like all enemies, it should be feared. Abraham and Isaac and anyone else who loses a loved one have the right to mourn and weep and be filled with sorrow.
C Though Abraham had been promised that the whole land would eventually become the inheritance of his descendants, when Sarah died he was still a wanderer and did not own even so much as a grave. So, at the heart of our Scripture reading is a public business transaction in which Abraham purchased some property from Ephron son of Zohar as a family burial ground.
The negotiations are intricate. The Hittites sound generous when they say, "None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead" (vs 9). However, they didn't simply give the cave to Abraham. They knew Abraham as "a mighty prince" – someone with lots of money and wealth, someone to be reckoned with. In spite of the generous-sounding language the Hittites had one goal in mind: a sizable cash payment from this mighty prince.
Ephron casually cited a price that is very high – four hundred shekels of silver. That is equal to about seven and a quarter pounds of silver. This is more than a laborer or artisan could expect to make in a lifetime. In comparison, David bought the site of the temple for six hundred gold shekels (1 Chron 21:25) and Jeremiah bought property in Jerusalem for only seventeen shekels (2 Sam 24:24). Without any negotiation Abraham agreed to pay this inflated price. In fact, he agreed to the price before he even knew what it was (vs 13).
The community's legal council, the men "in the gate of the city" (vs 10,18), witnessed and sealed the transaction. Then Abraham buried his beloved Sarah in the cave of Machpelah. She is the first recorded member of the covenant community to die and be buried in the Promised Land.
Future generations saw this as a privilege. So, for instance, when Jacob was on his deathbed he asked for his body to be taken to the Promised Land to also be buried in the cave of Machpelah (Gen 49:29-32; 50:12-14). And, as he was about to die, Joseph asked for his body to be taken to the Promised Land (Gen 50:24-26; Ex 13:19; Josh 24:32).
D It is easy to relate to this story if you ever had to make funeral and burial arrangements for a loved one. Abraham had to conduct some business in spite of his tears; he had to buy some cemetery space in spite of his sorrow. Abraham lived some four thousand years ago and funeral and burial practices back then were not the same as they are today. Yet, isn't Abraham's experience about the same as ours when we buy a cemetery plot and stone, pick out a casket, and arrange the ceremony? Common experience melts away the four thousand years so that we know exactly what Abraham was doing and going through.
II Abraham's Faith
A Now, what kept Abraham going? How was he able to handle his grief and pain and sorrow? And, how are we able to handle the grief and pain and sorrow of death?
The answer is quite simple: God gave Abraham the faith to believe and act on His promise.
What is the promise we are talking about? It is the promise of the land. God promised Abraham that someday the land of Canaan would be his.
Abraham believes this promise and he acts upon it. Notice what he does: he buys a section of the Promised Land, the field of Machpelah with its trees and cave, as a family burial ground.
B To help you understand how important this is, let me ask: under normal circumstances, where is a loved one buried? Under normal circumstances loved ones are buried in the place they call home. Think of the various members of Trinity whose body has been taken home to be buried in Chino or Ontario. In the case of Abraham and Sarah the place called home is Haran. After all, that's where their family was living. That's where Abraham's father, Terah, is buried. That's where Abraham's servant goes to find a wife for Isaac (Gen 24). That's where Jacob goes when he flees from his brother Esau; that's where he finds the woman he loves and marries (Gen 29). So you would expect Abraham to have Sarah buried in Haran. But he doesn't. Instead, he make arrangements for Sarah to be buried in Canaan.
C Do you realize what Abraham is doing? He lays claim to a part of the Promised Land as if it were already the homeland of his family. In burying Sarah in the Promised Land, Abraham takes a down payment, a deposit, on the blessing God had promised him. God has given Abraham the faith to act as if the Promised Land already was home.
This helps to explain why Abraham did not accept the generous sounding offer of the Hittites to simply "give" the field to Abraham. In that time and culture, to accept the field as a gift meant that Ephron's heirs could have reclaimed the land after Ephron's death – but Abraham, out of faith, viewed the land as being his permanent possession.
D It is the book of Hebrews that explains to us that Abraham was looking beyond the Promised Land to something else. We are told there that Abraham "was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb 11:10). We know this as the New Jerusalem, as the new heaven and new earth. We know this also as the resurrection body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. So when Abraham buried Sarah in Canaan, he was looking forward to the glory of God's presence and life everlasting and the resurrection of the body.
In this light, the Christian views the burial of Sarah in Canaan as a symbol of hope. Canaan, however, no longer represents a small piece of real estate in the Middle East; rather, it represents the new heaven and new earth. The burial of Sarah's bones in Canaan is a kind of deposit made in anticipation of the future when all God's people will live forever in the new Canaan.
When we face the death of a loved one, this future hope or promise of God gives us the strength to keep going. Like Abraham, we can lay our loved one to rest, knowing that there will come a day when we – with them – will live forever in the new Canaan.
III Aliens and Strangers
A Within this context, notice how Abraham describes himself in our text. He says, "I am an alien and a stranger."
"I am an alien and a stranger." Do you know what this means? This means I am simply passing through. This means I don't really belong here. This means that what I have now is temporary. This means what I have now is not all that important to me.
"I am an alien and a stranger." Do you know what this means? This means I am going somewhere else. This means I belong someplace else. This means another place or another country is called home. This means another place is permanent and abiding. This means another place is far more important to me.
Abraham knew this. That's why he said, "I am an alien and a stranger among you." He was "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." This was his perspective, his outlook.
B You and I know this too. We know we are only passing through. We know we don't really belong here. We know that life on this earth is temporary. We know that what we have here is not all that important. We know we are on the way to another place. We know we are headed home to glory and God's presence.
I need to ask if you can say the words of Abraham. Can you say, "I am an alien and a stranger"? You see, my brothers and sisters, either your home is down here or your home is the "city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God." Either you are passing through this life on the way to glory, or this life is all the glory you will ever have. So I need to ask, are you a pilgrim passing through on the way to eternal glory?
Those on the way to glory, those on the pilgrim road, those who look forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God, those who are simply passing through, all have something in common. God has given them all the faith to believe and act on His promise. That was true for Abraham and Isaac and Sarah. That is true for countless loved ones who have died before us.
And that is true for you and for me too if we believe in Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus makes the difference. Jesus makes the difference between being a pilgrim or a resident. Jesus makes the difference between simply passing through to a better place or calling this earth and this life and this body home. If you believe in Jesus and if you live for Jesus, then home is in another place. If you believe in Jesus and if you live for Jesus, then you know this life and this body and this earth are but temporary.
Do you believe in Jesus? Do you live for Jesus? If so, then God has given you the faith and the grace to handle life and death, prosperity and poverty, health and sickness. If so, then God has given you the faith and the grace to live here as an alien and a stranger, as a pilgrim, looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
When you face death – yours or a loved one – will you have Abraham's faith? Will you have faith in God's promises? Will you have faith that you or your loved one are going home – home to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God?
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