Christ in Genesis: wrestling with God, and seeing the face of God

Jacob lived with his cousin Laban and married Laban’s daughters. He gained a large family and became a wealthy man with large flocks and herds of livestock. The time finally came for Jacob to return home. He tried to slip away from Laban with his family and his livestock, but Laban pursued Jacob. Jesus personally warned Laban neither to bless nor curse Jacob. So the two men created a monument to mark a border between their two families, and they promised to leave each other alone.

Jacob was afraid that Esau would still be angry with Jacob. As Jacob once tried to bargain with God, now he tried to buy his brother’s love and forgiveness. He sent hundreds of animals ahead of him, telling the servants driving those animals that they were a present for Esau. Jacob even thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me” (Genesis 32:20). Jacob then sent his family and his remaining possessions across the stream and prepared to spend the night alone.

Jacob was not alone that night. Instead, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Although the man showed that he had the power to dislocate Jacob’s bones with just a touch, the man treated Jacob as an equal and did not defeat him. This man then changed Jacob’s name to Israel, saying, “You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). When Jacob asked, his opponent refused to tell Jacob his name. Jacob knew the identity of his opponent, though, because he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

Jacob knew that he had just had a close encounter with God. Since “no one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side he has made him known” (John 1:18), we can be confident that the wrestling partner of Jacob was Jesus. Why wouldn’t Jesus tell Jacob his name? To know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Even after wrestling Jesus to a draw, Jacob could not have power over Jesus. Despite all his attempts to bargain with God (and with his brother Esau), Jacob was still powerless—he had to trust God to keep God’s promises. So, in the last book of the Bible, it says that Jesus “has a name written that no one knows but himself” (Revelation 19:12). What is the use of a name that no one else knows? It shows that no one else has power over Jesus.

While some people describe the body of Jacob’s wrestling partner as the “pre-incarnate Christ,” a special miracle body for that one wrestling match, I maintain that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, who was in his own true body. This body of Jesus had been conceived within the virgin Mary, born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth. In that body he preached and taught, he gathered disciples, and he worked miracles. In that body he was arrested, beaten, mocked, scourged, and crucified. That body was buried in Jerusalem, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven. At his ascension, Jesus filled all things (Ephesians 4:10), time as well as space. Because Jesus is God, he has the ability to leave time and space and enter them elsewhere, without needing a DeLorean or a Tardis. Jacob wrestled with the body of his Savior, a body which bore the scars of nails on his hands and on his feet.

After wrestling with Jesus, Jacob met his brother Esau. Esau forgave Jacob his sins and refused to accept his gifts. He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him, much like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When Esau tried to return Jacob’s animals, Jacob said, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Genesis 33:10).

Jacob had seen Jesus face to face and had wrestled with him. He even said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Now Jacob says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God.” For Jacob, Esau was a picture of Jesus. Can he be any less for us?

Esau did not need gifts from Jacob, but out of kindness he accepted his brother’s gifts. God needs nothing from us, but out of grace he accepts our gifts. Not only the money we give to the Church, but also the good deeds we do for our neighbors, are gifts to Jesus. Jesus takes personally the things we do for people in need (Matthew 2534-40). Yet his love and his forgiveness do not depend upon what we do, for they have already been granted to us.

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Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

Christ in Genesis: Jacob’s Ladder

When Jacob had deceived his father and claimed his brother’s blessing, he had to run away from home. Jesus willingly gives to Christians the reward that Jesus deserved for obeying his father’s will, but Esau plots to kill his brother Jacob. Rebekah sends Jacob to her family, a place of safety, until enough time has passed that Esau will have lost his anger.

His first night away from home, Jacob meets Jesus. He takes a stone for his pillow and lays down to sleep. “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). Jesus stood above the ladder and spoke to Jacob, renewing the promise he had made to Abraham and Isaac. The same triple blessing is spoken: Jacob’s family will become a mighty nation, they will live on the land where Jacob was sleeping, and through that family on that land all the nations of the world will be blessed. (Again, the promise spoken by Jesus to Jacob is the promise fulfilled by Jesus when he comes to obey his Father and to sacrifice himself on a cross so our sins can be forgiven and we can be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.)

Jacob takes this dream to indicate that he has been sleeping in the house of God and at the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:17). He sets up a landmark to remember the place. Then he does what sinners so often do: he tries to bargain with God. Although God has made unconditional promises to Jacob, Jacob offers God a deal—if God will keep his promise to take care of Jacob, then the Lord will be Jacob’s God and the landmark Jacob made will be God’s house. Moreover, Jacob promises God one-tenth of Jacob’s wealth. God did not ask for any of this. He blessed Jacob because God’s nature is to love, to bless, and to show mercy. God’s plan, as described in his promise, is much bigger than the fortunes of Jacob. Yet Jacob takes this promise personally, thinking only of what’s in this promise for Jacob.

Not only did Jacob see Jesus at the top of the ladder; in the ladder itself he saw a picture of Jesus. We know this because of the words of Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is the only Way to the Father, the only way from this sinful earth to God’s perfect new creation. Jesus is the ladder, although if escalators had been invented when the book of Genesis was written, they would have been an even better picture of Jesus, bearing us up to heaven at no effort to ourselves.

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

Christ in Genesis: birthright and blessing

Men like Noah and Abraham are easily seen as pictures of Christ. Though neither man was sinless, they both obeyed the commands of God and brought blessing to the world through their obedience. The account of Esau and Jacob is harder to view in a Christ-centered way. Most often their relationship is treated as a morality play. Jacob cheats his brother and lies to his father; as a result he has to leave home and live with his cousin, Laban, who in turn cheats Jacob in a matter close to Jacob’s heart.

What, then, can we say of Esau? Before the twins were born, God declared that “the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Much later God said, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). Esau despised his birthright—the blessing he deserved for being Isaac’s firstborn son. He exchanged his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob swindled his brother by offering the exchange, but Esau’s low regard for his birthright seems to disqualify Esau as a picture of Christ.

Yet at least Esau got a bowl of soup in exchange for his birthright. Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God. He lived a sinless life worthy of great rewards. Yet he exchanged all that belonged to him and all that he deserved. He surrender it all to take on himself the burden of our sins. We are adopted into the family of God by this exchange, and all our guilt is removed from our lives. Instead of a bowl of soup, Jesus receives a cross of suffering. He is abandoned by his Father—which we deserve for our sins—and yet he prays for sinners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Even though Esau had surrendered his birthright to Jacob, and in spite of the fact that God had foretold Jacob’s success over Esau, Isaac still stubbornly wanted to bless his firstborn son. He sent Esau on a hunting expedition, and Esau went out into the wilderness in obedience to his father’s command. At this time, Isaac’s bride Rebekah enters the picture. She plans the deception of Isaac and performs all the work. She cooks the kids, she makes the goatskin gloves for Jacob to wear, and she dresses him in Esau’s clothing. Isaac is blind to his son’s deception, as God the Father is blind in love, accepting us in the name of his Son. As the Church by its teaching and by its blessings clothes us in the righteousness of Christ to bring us to God the Father, so Jacob is prepared by his mother to receive his father’s blessing, the blessing Isaac wanted to give to the son who was doing what Isaac told him to do.

Jacob nearly ruins the scheme by fumbling his one task—when he speaks to his father, he forgets to imitate his brother’s voice. Yet, being blind, Isaac trusts his senses of touch and taste and smell over his sense of hearing. He grants to Jacob the blessing he wanted to give to Esau. He treats Jacob as the son who is doing his father’s will. The same thing happens to Christians today, as God the Father says of Christians what he said to Jesus on the day Jesus was baptized: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well-pleased.”

Coffee

In my life I have participated in most of the legal substance-abuse vices, with the exception of tobacco. I’ve been around smokers frequently, but I’ve not been interested in smoking. Some other time I might address the abuse of sugar, salt, and oils, but today I want to write about coffee.

My parents had the habit of drinking a cup of coffee with each meal–breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They drank it black–no sugar, no milk or cream. As a child, I didn’t like the smell of coffee and didn’t want to drink coffee. Even when I went to college, coffee held no appeal for me.

That changed my last year of college. I took a course in art history which met three afternoons a week, right after lunch. The professor turned off the lights and showed slides of paintings and sculptures on the wall. He had a quiet, monotone voice. His quizzes were very difficult. To keep awake in class, I started drinking coffee with my lunch those three days of the week.

By the time I started graduate school, I was in the habit of drinking coffee every day. During my internship, I even learned to drink Cuban espresso, which absolutely requires a lot of sugar because it is so bitter. Also during my internship, I learned that drinking a cup of coffee during Wednesday night Bible class was a bad idea. I was often awake for hours after Bible class, until I learned to stop drinking coffee that late in the day.

When I graduated and started working a steady job, I had one day off each week. After a couple of months, I began to wonder why I always had a headache by lunchtime on my day off. I finally realized that my headache was a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Rather than giving up on coffee the other six days of the week, I started drinking coffee on my day off as well, and the headaches went away.

My habit became two cups of coffee a day: one with breakfast and the other with lunch. Most of the time I drink it black. On hot summer days, I sometimes prepare a cup of iced coffee, which includes sugar. On some winter days, I treat myself to a mocha, stirring a package of hot chocolate mix into a cup of coffee. I always fix my coffee at home, because I do not want to pay the coffee shop prices to soothe my addiction. I have been careful not to have coffee in the mid-afternoon or evening, because I want to be able to sleep at night.

This was not a scientific study with proper controls, but I have played video games while mildly intoxicated with alcohol, and I have played the same games while “buzzed” with caffeine. In matters of coordination and in matters of judgment, I found that caffeine created more problems for me than alcohol.

Over the years, I have given up alcohol for Lent, and I have given up caffeine for Lent. I found caffeine to be the harder substance from which to fast. Withdrawal symptoms, the desire for a drink, and the rush to return to the substance when Easter arrived all were stronger for coffee than for alcoholic beverages.

My doctor suggested that I cut my coffee drinking in half to help control my blood pressure. At first I resisted his advice, but after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I was willing to cut back to one cup a day. I still drink a mug of coffee after breakfast before I leave for work.

Some web sites list the dangers of caffeine, while others insist that caffeine is safe except in extremely high doses. Some mornings I savor my cup of coffee, while other mornings I worry about my addiction to caffeine. I sympathize with people who struggle with addictions, because I know how powerful my own addiction is in my life. J.

Mealtime

I don’t want to create the impression that my childhood was tightly regimented, but you could determine the day of the week by seeing what was served for breakfast. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we each had one fried egg, one strip of bacon (or one sausage link), and four ounces of orange juice. Tuesday we had scrambled eggs, Thursday we had French toast, Saturday we had cold cereal, and Sunday we had pancakes. Sometimes we had coffee cake along with the scheduled breakfast–usually leftover coffee cake from some other event. Only three days varied the routine: on Thanksgiving and Christmas we had coffee cake for breakfast, and on Easter we ate breakfast at church after the sunrise service.

Lunch was usually sandwiches, and (in the winter) a bowl of soup. The sandwiches might contain deli meat or perhaps a salad made from eggs, tuna, or some meat left over from an earlier dinner. Side dishes might be chips, pickles, applesauce, or whatever else was available. Since I lived just down the street from the school, I had lunch at home every day of the week. Sundays we did not have lunch; we had dinner at noon, generally a major meal with a beef roast or ham or some other big piece of meat, along with a vegetable, a salad, and a starch (whether bread or potatoes). On Sundays we had supper in the evening–generally sandwiches, just like lunch the other days of the week. The other evenings of the week we had dinner in the evening.

Monday was always laundry day. Everything was washed on Monday: bed sheets, towels and wash clothes, and clothing. Weather permitting, bed sheets and some clothing were hung in the back yard to dry. Everything was ironed, even bed sheets and blue jeans. Monday night’s dinner was frequently leftovers from Sunday’s dinner, unless it was something else easily prepared.

Friday was grocery shopping day, followed by a thorough housecleaning. When we got up Friday morning, we had to clear the furniture so it could be dusted and also pick up things from the floor so the floor could be vacuumed. All those things were piled on the bed; when I got home from school, I was expected to put them all away again. Not only were the bedrooms dusted and vacuumed; the living room and dining room were also dusted and vacuumed, and the kitchen was mopped. Friday’s dinner was either a casserole or something else easy to prepare, such as spaghetti or Spanish rice con carne.

Christmas was the only holiday that interfered with these Monday and Friday schedules.

Every lunch, dinner, and supper included a dessert. Lunch desserts might be a cookie or a piece of cake; dinner desserts were often pie or something else fancy. Desserts were always homemade. Bread for sandwiches or for a side at a dinner was also homemade. Dinners always included a salad–usually lettuce and dressing, but sometimes coleslaw, and sometimes (generally in the winter) jello with fruit. Many of the vegetables we ate were home-grown, either fresh when in season, or thawed and cooked after being frozen. After dinner we each had one piece of candy. In November, my piece of candy would come from what I had received on Halloween’s tricks-or-treats. That often lasted until Christmas. Christmas stockings included candy, and candy was also given on Valentines’ Day and in Easter baskets. When holiday candy had been consumed, we generally each got a piece of candy from a box of chocolates.

Dishes were done after every meal. (We didn’t have a dishwasher.) My mother washed the dishes; the rest of us dried them and put them away. Sometimes we played guessing games while doing the dishes (“I’m thinking of something vegetable.”) and sometimes we sang songs (“I’ve been working on the railroad.”). Doing the dishes was inevitable after every meal, and no one was excused from the chore.

We always ate our meals at the dining room table. Television was not on while we ate, with a rare exception for a Chicago Cubs baseball game or Chicago Bears football game. For a while, we also made an exception during Sunday supper for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Often the radio was on while we ate, especially during breakfast, and at times records were played during meals, especially in December when we listened to Christmas music.

When my friends visited and stayed for a meal, they were startled by the formality of my family. The table was always set with a plate, a glass, a spoon, a knife, a fork, and a napkin for each person. Food was served from platters or bowls, never from pots or pans. When the food was on the table and everyone was seated, we said a quick prayer, and then we passed the food around the table. No one started eating until everyone had his or her food. Each of us was expected to eat all the food that we put on our plates. Second servings were permitted, but only after everyone had finished their first servings. Dessert was not served until each of us had finished the rest of the meal.

Mealtime was family time. No one missed a meal unless work or school or sickness made it necessary to be absent. We talked to each other while we ate (but never spoke with food in our mouths), reviewing the day’s events or sharing jokes we had recently heard. Often during Sunday’s dinner we would discuss the pastor’s sermon. Feeders outside the dining room window held seeds to attract birds, and sometimes we would comment on an unusual visitor to the feeder.

Mealtime was valuable time, both for nutrition and for family togetherness. Many of my warmest childhood memories took place in the family’s dining room. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Bride

Isaac is a picture of Christ in at least three ways. His birth was promised in advance, just as Moses and the prophets promised the coming of Christ. Isaac’s birth to ninety-year-old Sarah was a miracle, just as Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary was a miracle. Isaac’s father was willing to sacrifice him for the good of the world, just as God the Father accepted the sacrifice of his Son for the good of the world. It stands to reason, then, that the bride of Isaac should in some way resemble the Bride of Christ, the Holy Christian Church.

Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac and bring her to him. So also God sent prophets to prepare the way of the Lord, so that believers in the coming Savior were rescued by the same faith in Jesus that rescues Christians today. The apostles were sent to make disciples of all nations, and missionaries are still sent into the world, so that the Church will consist of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9).

Abraham’s servant prayed to God for help. Those who preach and proclaim God’s Word do not save sinners by their own words of persuasion. Only Jesus saves sinners; only the Holy Spirit creates saving faith through God’s Word. The servant brings the message, but only God can provide the answer.

God answers the servant’s prayer “before he had finished speaking” (Genesis 24:15). The timeless God knows what we need and what we will pray. He wants us to pray, to keep in touch with him, but he generously provides for us—even more than what we ask—because of his love for us. Missionaries sometimes find that people who never heard of Jesus or the Christian Church are somehow prepared for the message, coming to faith as soon as they learn of the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

Abraham’s servant places jewelry from Abraham upon Rebekah before he speaks to her about marrying Isaac. The members of the Christian Church are not saved from sin and evil by the good things they do for God; they are saved by the good things Jesus has done for them. We bring nothing of our own to be accepted by Jesus as his people; we bring only the works Jesus has done for us—his obedience to his Father’s will, his sacrifice on the cross as a Ransom for us, and his victorious resurrection from the dead, defeating all God’s enemies on our behalf.

Rebekah is offered no choice whether or not to be married to Isaac. The servant describes his message from Abraham, Laban and Bethuel declare that “the thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

Yet after she has been claimed as Isaac’s bride, she is given a choice whether she will linger in her old way of life for several days or whether she will leave immediately with Abraham’s servant to be brought to Isaac. We cannot choose to come to faith, for we were “dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2). God made us alive, giving us faith—much as the command of Jesus made Lazarus alive and able to walk out of his tomb (John 11:43-44). Being made alive, we can linger in our old sinful ways or live in the new life provided by God’s Gospel. The prophets and apostles frequently urge people not to linger in the darkness but to walk in the light. People who are alive have freedom to make good choices or bad choices. People who are dead have no freedom.

Rebekah chooses to travel immediately to her husband, not to linger in her old way of life. So also the Bride of Christ comes to him, to the husband who “might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). Once again, Christians do not sanctify themselves for Jesus; they are sanctified by the work of Jesus, done on their behalf.

Before they left her home and her family, Abraham’s servant “brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah” (Genesis 24:53). When they approached Abraham’s home and Rebekah first saw Isaac from a distance, “she took her veil and covered herself” (Genesis 24:65). She came to her husband in clothing that he and his father had already provided to her. As God cast away the fig-leaf clothing Adam and Eve had made and provided suitable clothing for them, so the Church and its members come to Christ clothed in the righteousness he has provided us. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Clothed in his righteousness, we are his Church. Today we are still engaged to Christ, waiting for the Bridegroom to come in all his splendor to bring us to his mansion. Already, though, we belong to him, chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) to be his people forever.

Jim

When I was growing up, one of my neighbors was a boy I have decided to call “Jim.” Jim was four years older than me and was three grades ahead of me in school; he was also large for his age. Not only did we attend the same school: we also went to the same church, and our parents were friends.

I have always thought of Jim as a bully, although I can remember only one occasion when he was unkind to me. I was about eight at the time, and he offered to take me out on the river in his rowboat. When we were over the middle of the river, he started making the boat circle in the water. I was scared and begged to be taken back to the shore, but he just laughed and continued circling. I don’t know why I would have gotten into the boat of someone I feared and didn’t trust. All the same, my friend and I thought of Jim as a monster. When no one else was watching, we dropped rocks into the aforementioned boat. Aside from that, we were careful to keep our distance from Jim.

It occurs to me today that we may have feared Jim purely out of stereotyping. He was big and loud like the classic American bully. For all I know, he may have been very gentle at heart. Remembering Jim is painful for me, because I remember him with fear whether or not he deserved to be feared.

Jim died a few years ago of heart disease. I know that he was helpful to my parents several times over the last few years of his life. My father would probably be astonished to learn that I remember Jim as a bully, especially since I can offer only one example of anything mean that Jim did to me.

On occasion at work I cross paths with young men who remind me of Jim. In general they are hefty and have loud speaking voices. For a while I puzzled over the question of why these young men make me uncomfortable, until I realized their resemblance to Jim. When I am around these young men I feel threatened, even though they are doing nothing even remotely threatening toward me or anyone else.

Fear is not rational. Anxiety does not always make sense. I’m sorry to leave such a blot on Jim’s memory–I hope that somewhere on the internet someone else has written nicer things about him. J.