Sermon:  The End of a Golden Era by the Rev. Lee Woofenden 




By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 16, 2005
Audio Sermon

Genesis 25:1-18 The death of Abraham; Ishmael's sons

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Asshurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah.

Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.

Altogether, Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. 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. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. After Abraham's death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi.

This is the account of Abraham's son Ishmael, whom Sarah's maidservant, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. Altogether, Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the border of Egypt, as you go towards Assyria. And they lived in hostility towards all their brothers.

Matthew 5:17-20 The fulfillment of the Law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Arcana Coelestia #3236 Passing from heavenly to spiritual

"Abraham took another wife" means a further state that the Lord, whom Abraham represents, passed through. "Abraham and Sarah" represent the Lord on the Divine Heavenly level, and "Abraham and Keturah" the Lord on the Divine Spiritual. . . .

The Divine Heavenly and the Divine Spiritual relate to people who receive the Lord's Divine; for people see the Lord according to their own character. . . .

The Lord appears as the sun to those who are heavenly, but as the moon to those who are spiritual. The Lord appears to heavenly people as the sun because they have heavenly love in them, which is love to the Lord. But he appears to spiritual people as the moon because they have spiritual love in them, which is kindness toward the neighbor. The difference is like that between the light of the sun during the daytime and the light of the moon at night, and also between the warmth of both that causes things in the ground to grow. These are what were meant in Genesis 1 by the words, "And God made the two great lights, the greater light to have dominion over the day, and the lesser light to have dominion over the night" (Genesis 1:16).

Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. 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. (Genesis 25:7-8)

Today we are returning to our series on Genesis, and the lives of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We started with Genesis 12 and the Call of Abram. This is the beginning of what we might call "real history" in the Bible. Before this chapter, the story is more like mythic history: it was written to tell a spiritual message, but the events described did not take place literally. The events from Genesis 12 onward, though, speak of real people. Perhaps "the fish got bigger" over time as the story was told and retold; but these stories are based on actual events. Abraham was a real person, as were his sons Ishmael and Isaac and the others--and, of course, Jacob and his twelve sons, who became the twelve tribes of Israel.

From the time of the Call of Abram in Genesis 12, Abraham has had many travels. He has traveled from the land of Babylon to Haran, and then to the Holy Land. He has traveled to Egypt and back again, and has finally settled into the land. By the time of our story, his wife Sarah has died, and his son Isaac has married Rebekah.

Today's reading includes the story of another wife that Abraham took, named Keturah, by whom he had six more sons. It also includes the genealogy of his first son, Ishmael, who was borne to him by his wife Sarah's maidservant Hagar, an Egyptian woman.

But the centerpiece of the story is that Abraham has come to the end of his life on earth. He has lived a long and full life, and is passing on the torch to his son Isaac, who will carry on the family tradition. It is time, in the picturesque Biblical phrase, for Abraham to be "gathered to his people." And if anyone thinks that people of ancient times didn't believe in an afterlife, this one phrase should tell the story. Abraham was "gathered to his people." He was going to those he knew: to his parents, grandparents, and brothers who had died before him; he was going to be with those who knew and loved him, and were part of his early life.

Abraham's death was the passing of an era. In many ways, it was a golden, almost mythic era. It was not quite like the earliest days of the Garden of Eden. Yet it was a time of simple trust. Abraham simply heard the words of the Lord, and did them. He was not a complicated man. God told him to get up and go, and he got up and went. God told him to sacrifice his son, and he simply set out to do it--until God restrained him at the last minute. He followed without question the word of God as he heard it within himself, in his heart. It was a simple, golden era in the formative years of the Israelitish people.

In this series, we are following the Bible stories on two different levels. Our church teaches that these stories are not only about the life histories of people who lived several thousand years ago, but that as part of God's Word, they must have a meaning for us today as well. We believe that this meaning is hidden within the literal story. When the Lord was on earth, he spoke in parables. It says of Jesus in Matthew 13:34 that "he did not say anything to the crowd without using a parable." We believe that this is the way God speaks to us everywhere in the Bible: through parables that have deeper meaning.

We have been following the deeper meanings of these stories on two different levels: the level of our own inner spiritual growth, which we call "regeneration" or "rebirth, and the level of the Lord's inner process while he was on earth, which we call "glorification." We believe that the Lord Jesus was the pattern for all of us. This means that he must have gone through what we go through--yet at a far deeper level. So the Lord's story is our story.

The earlier golden age represented by the Garden of Eden was a different golden age. That was a truly mythic time. In our lives, it represents the time of our early infancy. Most of us do not have any memories of our infancy. It is deeply buried in our past and in our subconscious. We have to ask our parents and aunts and uncles to find out what we were like during those times, because for us the memories are veiled over, and are no longer available to us. Yet this was a formative period in our lives.

Abraham does not represent that earliest period in our life. Rather, he represents a time when we are entering into our early childhood and becoming toddlers. These are the times when our earliest conscious memories are formed. Our life at that time is very simple. At least it seems that way to us. It is complicated for our parents, of course. They have to take care of us and support us, and deal with all the complicated events going on in the world around us. But for us, it is a simple time when our parents take care of our needs, and we simply live from the heart. This is the "golden era" that Abraham represents in our lives: the early times of our first conscious memories, when we are spontaneous and open, living from our feelings, and letting others take care of us--just as the Lord took care of Abraham.

It would be nice if we could stay in that golden age of childhood, and be joyous and spontaneous and not worry about the things of the world. But we do grow up. We move beyond that stage and head into our older childhood and youth. And we begin to realize that the world is a lot more complicated than we thought. We go to school. That's a big adjustment for many of us. We see the little kindergarteners who don't want to go to school, clinging to their mothers and saying, "Do I have to, Mommy? I don't want to go!" We lose the early innocence of living in the "womb" of our family. We begin to go out into the world. An era has passed in our lives, just as an era was passing in the life of the early Patriarchs when Abraham breathed his last and died, and passed the torch to his son Isaac.

As we grow from that early stage when we are spontaneous and ruled by the heart, we pass into a time when we are ruled more by our head. We must think about our actions; we must learn what is right and wrong; we must apply what we learn to our words and actions; and we must feel the consequences when we don't do what we know we ought to do. We pass into a time of learning and of struggle. This is the time represented by Abraham's sons Isaac and Ishmael. It is a stage of conscious learning and thinking.

Looking a little farther in the story, Jacob represents the time when we are passing from youth into young adulthood, and we realize that our parents are will not be taking care of us anymore. It is a time to roll up our sleeves and get to work, as we begin to make our own way in the world.

We pass through all of these stages--from the early, spontaneous heart-centered time represented by Abraham, to a time of learning represented by Isaac, to a time in our youth and early adulthood represented by Jacob, when we must start using what we have learned in order to support ourselves and make our way in the world.

And as our life moves on we may have nostalgia for our early days. We may think back to the time of our childhood and say to ourselves, "If only things could be that way now; if only things could still be as simple as they were then." But they are not.

To use another example, it is like a marriage. When we first meet someone and feel an attraction, there is a spark, and we want to get to know the person. We get together with him or her, and we find that we are wonderfully attracted. We feel alive. We feel that this is the one--and it gives our life new meaning. Everything seems to be opening up for us. A whole new phase is beginning, and it is wonderful! We are blessed with a honeymoon in which we can enjoy our new love. This is a good thing. In our later lives, we can look back to this early honeymoon period, and draw strength from it as we face our life struggles together.

This early honeymoon period does not last forever. Some couples manage to hold onto it longer than others. But sooner or later, we begin notice the wart that's right there on our partner's face. And our partner notices the mole that's right there on our face. Of course, I'm speaking metaphorically: we begin to realize that this person we are living with is not perfect, and our partner begins to notice that we are not perfect. We begin to rub against each other and chafe in a way that we didn't when we were first falling in love.

We pass from the early innocence, when our heart was leading, to a time when we have to work on our marriage. In this new phase, if we want to remain together, we have to recognize that neither we nor our partner is perfect--which means that we must change and grow, that we must struggle, and that our life together will not always be easy.

In later life, we sometimes look back at the very beginning of our relationship and wish we could be back in that beautiful time. And yet, as our marriage progresses we are growing inwardly, and becoming more mature. We are learning to love one another on a deeper level than before. At first it was all excitement. Now we are beginning to look within and see the deeper aspects of one another, and find places where we can grow together. Yes, the end of the honeymoon is the end of an era . . . but it is also the beginning of a new era.

It is the same in our spiritual lives. Each of us who has made a decision to give our lives over to the Lord, to commit our lives to the church or to a spiritual way of living, probably had an early "honeymoon" period when it was very exciting to embark on this new and deeper phase in our life. We thought with enthusiasm, "This is going to be the new me. This is going to be my new life." And we soaked up everything we could from the church. We really wanted to learn about the Bible and the church's teachings and all about spiritual things. Everything was fresh and new. This is the time of Abraham in our spiritual life. Everything is new, and we are simply and innocently following the Lord where he leads us.

But as we progress in our spiritual life, just as in our growing up years and just as in marriage, we begin to hit snags. We begin to realize, for example that the church is telling us we must love our neighbor as ourselves, and we don't love our neighbor as ourselves. We still care more about ourselves than we do about others. And we realize that we have to face issues like this and struggle with them. We cannot just be led by our heart; we must let our heads tell us that this or that thing about ourselves is not quite right--and then work to change it.

This is what we go through when we pass from the time of Abraham to the time of Isaac in our spiritual life. We move from our early excitement and heart-led embracing of a spiritual way of life to the realization that this is going to mean an awful lot of work for us.

It is the end of an era. But it is also the beginning of a new one.

The same thing happened in the Lord's life. As Jesus grew up, he also had an early phase in which he lived simply and innocently. And as time went on he, too, moved into a time of learning, and then to a time of great struggle.

As a boy, we know that the Lord did at least two things. One was that he learned the Scriptures thoroughly. We know this from the skillful way he quoted them later on, in his adult life. As a young boy Jesus studied the Scriptures, soaking them up and grasping the depths of that wonderful, ancient wisdom. We also know that Jesus learned the trade of carpentry from his father. Those who have done woodworking know that there is a lot of satisfaction in cutting the wood and shaping it and sanding it and putting it together to make something both beautiful and useful, such as a chair or table.

We can imagine Jesus as a boy soaking up both worldly and spiritual knowledge, and living simply, from the heart. Yet he came to a time when he knew he must do greater and more difficult things. It was the passing of that early, innocent phase, and the beginning of a new period of struggle, conflict, and conscious effort to carry out his mission.

Because the Lord also went through these phases, we can look to him as we go through our own life passages, and realize that the Lord went before us. He went through everything that we go through, and showed us the way. His way was to face the deeper issues, to struggle against the evil, and to overcome it, both for himself and for all of us. His life gives us the pattern for our lives.

It is hard to leave behind the early, innocent time when things were simple, and everything seemed to just flow along. Yet we know that we must become adults. We must face both our inner demons and the evils in the world around us. In our spiritual life, we too must pass from Abraham to Isaac.

It is hard to face the death of our early, heartfelt, and innocent idealism. But the Lord does not ask us to struggle and toil for nothing. He gives us a wonderful promise. It is same promise that he made to Abraham when he first called him in Genesis 12. He promised that if Abraham would follow the him, he would bring Abraham into the land that he would show him: the land of Canaan, which is the Holy Land.

The Lord gives us the same promise. If we will face the issues of life and engage in the struggles ahead of us--whether those struggles are in our marriage, in our working life, or in our spiritual life--the Lord has a wonderful promise for us. He assures us that in the course of time we will find ourselves settled in the Holy Land.

The Holy Land of marriage is a deep, joyful, and loving marriage, in which we are together with our partner as one, supporting each other throughout our lives, and to eternity.

The Holy Land of our spiritual life comes when realize that all of our struggles have been worth it. One day we will know that everything we have done to face and overcome our inner and outer obstacles has been leading us on a path that only the Lord knew from the beginning, but that we are now discovering. The Lord is leading us on a path toward becoming angels: toward becoming people who can truly love one another, feel the Lord's love inside ourselves, and make our eternal homes in the heavenly community. Amen.


Audio Sermon


The painting is ©Elaine Vance Shaw
and used with her permission.

Music: Heart to Heart
© Bruce DeBoer