Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Women in the Bible: Strength

                                                Rebekah, pregnant with twins Esau and Jacob

What does it mean to show strength? In today's world, strength is often thought of as the ability to move heavy things, to be in control of people and situations, or to dominate. If you responded with these answers, of course you would be correct; it'd be hard to argue with you. In a conversation I recently had with someone struggling with a death in their family, they indicated that they "must remain strong for their family." What that meant to them was to not cry in front of them, to show some control over themselves, and even the situation. The truth is, though, that we are not in control. There are certain things we simply cannot manipulate or change. Strength, in these moments, means to trust in God and in yourself, even in the hardest of times. Strength does not always mean these things.

In Rebekah's story, found in Genesis 24-27 (I invite you to read it...), she shows a different kind of strength. Her's is not a dominating or controlling kind of strength, but one that showed love. When you read the story, though, you can see that the love that she showed towards Jacob caused some major complications for the family. Jacob and Esau were twins, born of Rebekah and Isaac.

                                                    Esau and Jacob, wrestling

In the ancient near east, the custom was that the firstborn son was to inherit the family's wealth. You can see why having twins would complicate things. This inheritance, this "blessing," was very fickle. The text even says that Jacob and Esau grappled in the womb, tugging and pushing each other back so that one could be born first. To complicate things even more, Isaac and Rebekah favored each of the boys: Isaac initially followed custom and planned to give his "blessing" to Esau, who was technically born first.

                                                                    Esau sells birthright
                                                                    Isaac blesses Jacob
                                                         Jacob receives Isaac's blessing after tricking him

                                  Jacob, prompted by Rebekah, tricks Isaac into giving him the birthright

Rebekah, though, favored Jacob. Jacob ended up "stealing" Esau's birthright and his blessing. Talk about a family feud. They both jockeyed for power and strength. The point is not that Rebekah was really the strong one, it is that showing strength does not mean that there will not be trials, heartache, confusion, and fear. She was strong in the midst of those things. After the theft of his birthright and blessing, Esau planned to kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah then told Jacob: "Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” (Gen, 27: 43-45). Her strength provided her hope that one day the twins would be reconciled (they were, eventually). Her strength provided her the courage to continue loving and protecting Jacob. It didn't clean up the mess, it didn't make things perfect, but her strength was a, unwavering trust and hope for the future.


God of great and God of small,
God of one and God of all,
God of weak and God of strong,
God to whom all things belong: alleluia, alleluia, praise be to your name.

*God of Great and God of Small, Worship and Song, 3033

In Christ,


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Women in the Bible: Justice

Continuing our summer sermon series "women in the Bible," this week we explore the theme of justice with Rizpah and the Queen of Sheba. Rizpah's story can be found in 2 Samuel 3: 6-11 and 21: 1-14, and the Queen of Sheba's in 1 Kings 10: 1-13 (2 Chronicles 9:1-12 provides a parallel telling of her story). Both of these women, in very different ways, sought justice.

One of the reasons I love this sermon series so much is that I am becoming familiar with powerful and inspirational characters in the Bible that I believe we can relate with on some level. Initially, I am struck with frustration that I did not learn much about these women growing up in church. When I get past that feeling, I am freed up to soak in the wonderful stories. 

Rizpah and the Queen of Sheba are a few of these characters. These women were not part of my religious upbringing; I did not learn about them until seminary, and really until this sermon series. I am thankful for this opportunity to do that with you! 

I invite you to read the story of Rizpah, which is cited above...(really, go ahead, read it...)

So, she was a concubine of Saul's. Not much power, not much voice, not much influence in her world. This is an ongoing theme not only for women, but throughout scripture. God uses people like this to show us something quite often, if we would only have the courage and open mind to listen to their story. Rizpah does not even speak in these passages. She has no words. She is simply a political pawn without power, status, or significance. But, she faces her grief with such courage for justice, that even king David takes notice. Both of the men that were in positions to protect and provide for Rizpah died. She was left alone. Later on, as David was rising in power, he had to atone for the sins of Saul to the Gibeonites, who asked for the slaughter of some of Saul's relatives. Among them were 2 of Rizpah's sons. He showed no signs of concern for Rizpah at all, and simply handed them over to be killed. How devastating is that? Heartbroken, Rizpah could have felt helpless, that there was nothing for her to do. She had lost any hope for security and protection now. And now she was faced with the desecration of her son's bodies. But she had other ideas; she would not allow that to happen. She was not allowed to move them or bury them, but she tried her best to protect them. So, she went to the place the bodies were kept, put a cloth over them, and stayed there. Imagine her protecting them from vultures, predators, putting herself in danger to protect them. This was a vigil, and a risky one at that. No matter how dangerous and gruesome this vigil was, she held it.She honored her sons and protected them from further humiliation. Eventually, David heard of this, and granted these sons a decent burial. This was all against a backdrop of a devastating famine. When David did this, the famine was over, signaling God's desire for mercy over vengeance.

The Queen of Sheba pursues justice in a different way. Using her power and influence, she reminds King Solomon. The queen had heard of King Solomon's fame and wisdom, but had to go see for herself. So she goes and visits her and is impressed, saying “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your accomplishments and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes saw it. Not even half of the greatness of your wisdom had been told to me; you far surpass the report that I had heard. Happy are your people! Happy are these your servants, who continually attend you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on his throne as king for the Lord your God. Because your God loved Israel and would establish them forever, he has made you king over them, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” 

What a scene this must have been! The queen did not adhere to the same religion that Solomon did, but affirms his leadership through God, encouraging him to use his role for justice and righteousness. 

Whether we have power and influence or not, we always have the ability to encourage others to lead in this way, through a God that is just. 


O God, our help in ages past, 
our hope for years to come, 
our shelter from the stormy blast, 
and our eternal home. 

Under the shadow of thy throne, 
still may we dwell secure; 
sufficient is thine arm alone, 
and our defense is sure. 

Before the hills in order stood, 
or earth received her frame, 
from everlasting, thou art God, 
to endless years the same. 

A thousand ages, in thy sight, 
are like an evening gone; 
short as the watch that ends the night, 
before the rising sun. 

Time, like an ever rolling stream, 
bears all who breathe away; 
they fly forgotten, as a dream 
dies at the opening day. 

O God, our help in ages past, 
our hope for years to come; 
be thou our guide while life shall last, 
and our eternal home. 

*O God, Our Help in Ages Past, United Methodist Hymnal, 117.

In Christ, 


Lynn Japinga's Preaching the Women of the Old Testament heavily influenced this blog post 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Women in the Bible: Faith

Here at Gray Memorial UMC, we are embarking on a sermon series focusing on women in the Bible. We began with the stories of Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6), Ruth and Naomi, and Esther (who each have books in the Bible devoted to their story.) These women show incredible faith and courage in God, in themselves, and in their causes for justice. We continue the theme of "faith" this week by considering some of the stories of women in the New Testament: the woman at the well (John 4), the woman who touched Jesus' cloak (Luke 8), and Mary Magdalene. Each of these women shows their faith in Jesus in their own ways.

Each of these women shows us that faith is not a quiet, pious endeavor. Rather, faith is what prompts your actions and your reactions. The woman at the well's claim that "I know the Messiah is coming" is only the beginning for her. She then took her experience and shared it with her community. She put her faith into action. It is quite meaningful how this was such a counter-cultural experience. Women were not valued in the ancient near east. Moreover, this experience crossed racial divides as Jews and Samaritans just didn't get along. On this Independence Day, I come to this story very thankful to be an American. I have freedoms and opportunities that folks across the world just don't have. But I am also reminded that my nationality is only a portion of my identity. My full identity is in Christ, as it was for this woman, whose life was changed by Jesus.

I also learn from the woman who touched Jesus' cloak. I learn from her to have hope, and to dare to reach out for Jesus, even if I might look foolish. Can you imagine watching someone reach for just a touch of someone's jacket? How weird would that be!? This woman did not care about the way she looked, but hoped that her act would in fact heal her. Nowadays, this may look like praying in a public place, or risking your image in order to pursue God in some way. This woman teaches me to have an undignified faith in the hope that Jesus offers.

Mary Magdalene also shares this kind of faith. After Jesus died and was placed in the tomb, she went there, only to find the door open and the cave empty. Mary Magdalene was the first person Jesus encountered after his resurrection, scripture says. It led Mary back into town to share with Jesus' other followers. How foolish she must have looked and sounded. To be speaking of how Jesus was raised up from the dead, after most of them just witnessed his devastating and tortuous crucifixion, must have sounded like foolishness. But Mary had the faith that led to this action, becoming the first preacher of the resurrection anyone ever heard. Millions have tried to shred her reputation by claiming, without any biblical evidence of it, that Mary was a prostitute, but her story remains one of the most powerful ones in the Bible. Her reputation may have taken a hit, but that's the type of risk that is often involved with being faithful to Jesus. Your life will change, your image will change, your actions will change. You may look foolish, people may try and discredit you, and your life will be a series of questionable decisions...but, as the apostle puts it in Galatians 5:1, "for freedom Christ has set us free."


Let us plead for faith alone,
faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
only faith the grace applies.

*United Methodist Hymnal, 385.

In Christ, Jack