The Bitter and the Sweet

Heritage Presbyterian Church

5th Sunday after Pentecost
July 2, 2023

Scripture readings:  Genesis 22:1-14 & Jeremiah 28:1-17

Intro: I am currently preaching a theme called “Covenant Agreements with God.”  In this series, we are exploring various covenants God made with his people throughout history.  First, there was God’s covenant with Adam; next was God’s covenant with Noah.  Then, the covenant God made with Father Abraham.

However, rather than a specific covenant, today we will be focusing on how these covenants include both the bitter and the sweet sides of any covenant God chose –  because God is always dealing with fallible human beings.


Two stories for today;

two descriptions of covenants that God had with specific human beings;

two accounts that turned out triumphantly;

two examples of the bitter and the sweet that can sometimes occur when serving God.

Let’s be clear: 

I am NOT implying that God enjoys playing mind games with us to see how far we will go.

I am NOT saying God is cruel when dealing with us.

I am NOT saying every encounter with God should immediately and ALWAYS turn out in God’s favor AND in our favor too.

I am saying look at the pattern: in the covenants we have explored so far, each one of them involved both the bitter and the sweet.

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden, the bitter part of that story was pretty clear: they were banished from the Garden, they had to till the soil in order to get food to grow, the serpent was condemned to crawl in the dust and to be the eternal enemy of humans.

Pretty clear…but what about the sweet?  Is there any?

Look more closely: did God strike Adam and Eve dead?  Did they both die because they ate the fruit they weren’t supposed to eat?  

Or did God regroup and continue to love, guide, and care for his original children?

The bitter and the sweet.

When God decided to destroy all of creation because of its wickedness, God didn’t do it; Noah gave God an option to go a different way.  So, humankind was spared, and life began again.

Life destroyed because of its wickedness…bitter.

Life given a second chance because of the righteousness of Noah.   Sweet.

And just to seal the deal, God puts a rainbow in the sky to remind us of the promise never to do this again.

Then we get to Father Abraham.

The bitter may be unclear, but here it is: Abram and Sarai did not have any children of their own.

Sarai gives her maidservant to Abram to produce a child, which Hagar does.

Yes, the child is born, but that child is a bitter reminder of how life was incomplete for both Sarai and Abram.

Then the sweet: God makes a promise to Abram that he will be the father of nations through Sarai.  Their names are even changed to recognize this: Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah; their names mean “Father” and “Mother.”  Oh, so sweet!

But today’s reading reveals a side of Abraham that no parent wishes to see: just how faithful is he?

God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.  Abraham obeys and follows all of God’s instructions.  

And, as usual, we get NO insight as to how Abraham felt about this.  Was his heart shattered?  Was he a broken man, desperately hoping something would change?  

God told Abraham to leave his original country and to go toward a land that God had not even pointed out clearly.

Abraham went.

God told Abraham he would be the father of nations.  Abraham never said he didn’t believe, just that he didn’t understand.

So, in the face of all that faith, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham obeyed.  The bitterness of this is too much for any loving parent to fully comprehend.

But the sweet!  Oh, the sweet!  The angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand just as he was plunging the knife into Isaac.  The son is spared!  The faith is proven.

We don’t much like it because we all enjoy either happy stories of triumph and faith without too much sacrifice, or we enjoy stories in which the wicked get what’s coming to them.

This business of tragedy and triumph, of evil and good, of the bitter and the sweet is too edgy for most of us.

But we’re not done.  Now we turn to Jeremiah.

Whenever we think of prophets from the Bible, we immediately picture unique individuals who all had some characteristics in common:

  • They were each called individually by the Lord to bring a message to the people.
  • They were impatient and didn’t want to waste a moment in their task.
  • They tended to be cranky when others got in their way or mocked them or challenged them.  They could prove their role…they just didn’t want to waste time doing it.
  • Finally, they were publicly stubborn; they didn’t hide in the shadows and leak their message out hoping someone would find it.

Add to all of those descriptions one more characteristic: one of them tended to become discouraged and wept for God’s people – that was Jeremiah.

Jeremiah knew what would happen because God told him the bad news: the Kingdom of Judah – the last remnant of the Promised Land – would fall to the Babylonians and their King, Nebuchadnezzar.  This pagan king would be God’s instrument to punish the people for their arrogance and their faithlessness – and especially their worship of other gods!  This was the bitter word and Jeremiah had to deliver it.

But not so fast!  Not so fast!  Another so-called prophet showed up with good news, wonderful news, sweet news!  This would not happen!  God would lead the people to break the yoke on their necks brought by Nebuchadnezzar.  God would free them.  Peace would exist throughout the land, and life would be…sweet!

Good news!  Wonderful news!  Sweet news!

Too bad it was a lie.

Note how Jeremiah responds: “Amen!  May the Lord do so!”

Then Jeremiah goes on to tell the bitter truth: nothing Hananiah said would come true.  Their subjugation by the Babylonians would last 40 years, not 2. 

And as for the so-called prophet: he would die in that very year of his false message.

And that’s the bitter truth, folks.

How often in our own lives have we had to take the bitter with the sweet when it comes to following and serving the Lord?

Have any of you ever lost friends because of your faith?

Have you ever been bitterly mocked because you chose to believe in Jesus?

Or to look at it another way, have you ever had a fellow Christian tell you that you weren’t doing it right, you weren’t faithful enough, you were believing false messages instead of what the Bible REALLY says?

Have you ever had seen the bitter coming a mile away but you chose to pursue the right path – even though you couldn’t discern the sweet at that particular moment?

I know this concept really well, and I also know I may not be done learning it.

In the late summer of 2009, my family and I all attended worship services at the church I was serving, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, in the little farming town of Needville, about ten miles south of Sugarland.  It was a wonderful day full of celebration and yet some poignant goodbyes.  I was even blessed to see the young minister who would be coming in to become their next called pastor, so I knew they were in good hands.

After lunch, we said goodbye and drove home.  I had myself a good cry in my separate car, but it was not a bad thing.

When we got home, the four of us finished packing up the house and our two cats.  Then my wife and I had to say goodbye to our kids.  That was the most bitter goodbye we had ever done.  We all stood in the front yard hugging each other fiercely and trying not to cry. 

My daughter finally drove off heading back to Austin and to college, and our son left to return to his apartment and his studies.  My wife and I held each other for a while until we could get control of ourselves.

Both of us knew we had the opportunity of a lifetime going to Princeton Seminary in New Jersey.  Both of us knew this was where God wanted us to be (and God was definitely right!).  Both of us had looked ahead to the sweet so much that we completely forgot about the bitter for a little while.  That moment was the bitter.

But my wife got in the car with the chirping cat and all our clothes, and I got in the truck with the screeching cat and 27-feet worth of everything we owned.  We may not have had the strongest faith we’ve ever had at that moment, but we had enough to make the three-day trip.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bitter and sweet…we were never guaranteed only sweet.

In our individual journeys, in our individual covenants with the Lord and with his people, often life is going to be hard, unpleasant, difficult – and bitter.

Keep going…your sweet Lord is waiting.