Monday, 28 July 2014

Jacob gets wives- Gen 29

Jacob’s name comes from the word for “heel”. Jacob was a twin and when he was born he was grasping his brother Esau’s heel, as if he was hoping to pull him back into the womb so he could be the firstborn of the twins. That moment defined his relationship with his twin brother. He desired to supplant and to overtake his brother.
We spoke last week about how Jacob manipulated his starving brother, Esau, into selling him his inheritance for a bowl of stew. Then we spoke about how Jacob stole his brother’s blessing by cooking a meal and tying goat hair to his arms to fool his nearly blind father, Isaac, into believing he was his brother, Esau. Isaac gave him the blessing reserved for the firstborn to be spoken before he died. Esau was rightly furious to have all of his birthright pulled out from under him by his trickster brother, so Jacob fled for his life because Esau was planning to kill him. Jacob flees under the guise of finding himself a wife.       
Jacob goes back to his mother’s family- Abraham’s old stomping ground. He meets Laban his mother’s brother, but more importantly he meets Rachel and it seems to be love at first sight. Jacob works for his uncle and as payment Jacob asks instead for the hand of his younger daughter Rachel in marriage. So Jacob works for 7 years to be able to marry Rachel. Seven years of anticipation. Seven years of yearning. Seven years of seeing her coming and going doing her chores. Seven years could seem like a lifetime, but we read “Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen 29:20).  
Finally the big day came. Laban puts on a feast and invites everyone he knows. He spares no expense. There is an enormous amount of food and drink. There are musicians and dancing. Jacob sits through the feast held in honour of the love he shares with Rachel. She sits near him throughout the feast. She is dressed beautifully. She is wearing a beautiful veil and their eyes sneak glances at each other that express their longing for each other that has grown over the seven years of waiting.  The feast lasts into the night and finally there is a ritual where Rachel is led by firelight into Jacob’s dark tent. The darkness is one last veil of modesty before Rachel becomes a married woman. The feasting and drinking and celebrating and seven years have led to this moment. She is welcomed into his dark tent through a ritual procession of torches that cut through the darkness. The night is full of passion that matches the 7 years of longing.

As the sun rises Jacob wakes up. He reaches over to run his fingers along the cheek of his sleeping bride, seeing her for the first time as his wife. His eyes are sticky with sleep and still unable to focus, but suddenly he sees it is Leah! He doesn’t believe his eyes at first, but as the sleep leaves he sees with eyes fully awake.  The sleeping woman is Leah! It is the older sister- Rachel’s sister! Horrified, Jacob leaves her still asleep and runs to see Laban. He sees Rachel in the corner of the tent making bread. His eyes lock with hers, the passion he thought they shared the night before he knows is an illusion now. Her eyes are red and swollen by tears shed throughout the night. She looks down as more tears fill her eyes that were full of such joy during the previous day’s feast.
Enraged, Jacob confronted Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban responds saying, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’
The climax of the last seven years was twisted. The passion he reserved for Rachel was given to Leah. The thought of having to live the last seven years over again was hardly bearable. It was cruel and unusual.
There is a strange justice at work. Jacob has stolen the inheritance of the firstborn and the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Through his deceit he has denied the rights of his brother. And now he is deceived into fulfilling the obligation to the firstborn daughter. His deceit has come back to him. The trickster has been tricked. The firstborn has finally prevailed over Jacob. There is a poetic justice at work here.  
Laban promises Rachel to him if he will work an additional seven years. Is this deception to honour Leah, the firstborn?  Or, does Laban not want Jacob to leave and knows he can get his services for another seven years through this deception?  Regardless, the trickster is tricked and Laban will have his way. Rachel is given to Jacob a week later, but it seems impure and anticlimactic. Leah know she has been part of a deception and that the passion she felt from her husband that first night together never really belonged to her. It was a taste of a passion she would never feel again because it rightfully belonged to her sister Rachel. Leah’s tragedy is that she would never again feel that loved and desired again. Leah would be the third wheel. She would forever feel like the intruder. Perhaps she secretly loved Jacob all those years and thought that if she was given the chance she could win his heart. Maybe the deception was her idea. Even if it was her father’s idea, she was a part of the deception. It was tragic though. Now Leah was trapped in a loveless marriage, forever competing with her sister for the attention of their husband. The poet Eva Avi-Yonah wrote a poem called “Leah”:
If I had a little sister,
Rachel with sparkling eyes,
wooed for seven years
and loved by him,
I’d swathe myself in her mantle,
enwrap myself in her night. …
One single night! Rachel,
to taste his tender touch
till day unmasks.
One single night, till dawn.
You will be loved another seven years and more.
Red are my eyes and filled with tears, Rachel.
His glances never follow me.
But I shall bear his sons,
Oh, yes, Rachel!
and bear the harrowing memory
of one night.
One night when I was you, Rachel,
and Leah sat inside her tent and wept.

It is amazing that the history of God’s chosen family is such a mass of deception and lies and dysfunction. It is full of sibling rivalry and family infighting and competition. It seems strange to have stories like this in the Bible. Where is the hero of the story? Where is the lesson to be learned? Many of us can relate to the sibling rivalry, the conflict between parents and children, manipulative parents, and tension with in-laws. This is not an idealized story. It is an incredibly messy story. And there is no lesson here to be learned about how to deal with sibling rivalry. The only true hero in this story is God.
Through it all the invisible hand of God is moving. God is making His promises come true in spite of the messiness and deception. God is bringing His blessing into the world even through them, and so we can be confident that though the world seems unbelievably messy, that it will not thwart God’s plan. God’s invisible hand will move through the mess, bringing His promises into reality as He always has. As messy as we see the world to be- as messy as we see our lives to be- God’s promises will not be stopped.
There is one thing I want us to notice. We read that “Jacob … loved Rachel more than Leah”. I want us to especially notice the tragedy of Leah. We don’t know how much choice she had about the deception. It may have been forced on her. Perhaps her father thought she wouldn’t get married unless some poor sap was tricked into it. Regardless, Leah was trapped in a marriage where she was not first choice. She was a trick, and now she was trapped.
I want us to notice that God noticed Leah. We read that, “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘Because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me.’ She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing.”  We can feel the pain of rejection in the naming of her children. God notices her pain and the thing we learn about God here is that God takes sides. God loves everyone, of course, but God has a preference. God is for the afflicted, for those who are hated for no fault of their own, the despised, the rejected, the unloved, and unnoticed.
Through the words of the prophets we will see God’s preference for the poor- the widow, the orphan, the alien immigrant, and the rejected. We see this preference in Jesus too. In Matt 25 Jesus teaches us that the way we have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned will be how we have treated Jesus. To reject them or ignore them is to ignore Jesus. God takes sides. To be on the side of the poor and rejected is to be on God’s side. To be against the poor and rejected is to pit yourself against God.
Jacob, the trickster, stumbles along and is himself deceived as he has deceived others. Leah is a relatively innocent bystander, but is a continuous reminder to Jacob of the way he has been fooled. The promise will flow through her children and she will receive love from them and from God that she did not receive from her husband. This is all incredibly messy, like real life, but God works through the mess.    

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

God works with scoundrels- Gen 28

Gen 28:10-19

When we meet up with Jacob in our Old Testament reading we find him at a very low point. His twin brother Esau was technically the firstborn and so he was the one who had the claim on the inheritance of their father Isaac. The two brothers were very different, even though they were twins. Esau was an athletic hunter. He was a hairy man. He was an outdoorsman and seemed to be someone who had intense emotions and was perhaps a bit of an extrovert. Jacob was a quiet man and was more comfortable indoors cooking and sticking closer to home. There seems to have been a bit of competition between them.

One day Esau came back from being in the field and was very hungry. We don’t know how long he was gone. He may have been out hunting for a week, or maybe he was just out for the afternoon, but either way he felt like he was starving. He smelled what Jacob was cooking and asked for some. But instead of offering his starving brother some of the stew, Jacob asks him for his right to the inheritance first. Esau is feeling so overcome by hunger that he agrees to give Jacob his rights to the inheritance. 
Another time their father, Isaac, tells Esau to prepare him a meal and then he will give him his fatherly blessing, which was to be bestowed on the eldest before the father died- Patriarch to the next patriarch. Jacob and his mother conspire to sneak the blessing out from under Esau. Jacob’s mother prepares a young goat and ties the goat hair to Jacob’s arms. He brings the prepared goat to his father pretending to be Esau. Isaac was elderly and his eyesight was failing him. Somehow the trick worked and Jacob receives the blessing that was being reserved for his brother Esau. Jacob is trying to replace Esau’s place in the family. He received their father’s blessing, and Esau offered his inheritance in exchange for stew.

At this point Esau had enough and he decides that after their father dies that he will kill Jacob. Jacob and his mother become aware of Esau’s plan and Jacob leaves under the guise of finding a wife for himself from among Abraham’s people who lives in the north. Jacob, who prefers life close to home, is suddenly running to save his life. His journey will take him almost 1000 km away from home.

Jacob is a scoundrel. He takes every opportunity to take what belongs to his brother. He is a trickster. He is a liar. He takes unfair advantage at every opportunity. He doesn’t seem to care about his brother’s well-being, or his brother’s rights. To preserve his life he now has to leave home. His return is unknown. He likely doesn’t know if he will ever be able to return at least as long as Esau is alive or as long as anyone loyal to Esau is at his home. Jacob is essentially in Exile.  

As far as people likely to encounter God, Jacob’s kind of person is not usually high on our scale at this point.  If we think of someone God is likely to speak to, a lying scoundrel that tricked his father and scammed his brother out of the family inheritance isn’t usually who comes to mind unless we are hoping for a voice calling the person to repentance. We don’t often think of con-men as being people who have a particularly close relationship with God.

We sometimes put people into categories like this. Who is God going to speak to? Who is God going to listen to? I know of people who don’t really pray because they think God won’t listen to them because they think they aren’t “important” enough, or aren’t “holy” enough. They might believe in God, but they would rather ask someone else to pray for them- someone, in their mind, God is likely to listen to.  Who are we that God would listen to us, or concern himself with us? With the Psalmist we ask, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps 8:4). But, how much more lying and cheating mortals?

I don’t know how Jacob felt. He was banished. He was away from his beloved mother. He was away from his whole family- away from the home he loved. He was in unfamiliar territory. He knew he was running for his life. He knew Esau wanted to kill him for good reason. Esau had every right to be upset with him, and so he probably didn’t feel any right to ask for protection. I would imagine Jacob felt lost, guilty, afraid, and like a bit of a low-life. If God was going to appear to him we would imagine He would be calling him to repent and would be drawing his attention to the way he treated his brother and the way he tricked his father. But, that’s not what happens.

Jacob walks until the sun sets. He is in the middle of nowhere. He sets himself up to sleep for the night and finds a stone to use as a pillow. This is not necessarily an ideal set up for an encounter with God. We would probably think it should be a holy person and they should be sleeping in a holy place. We think of little Samuel dedicated by his mother to serve the Temple, sleeping in the temple and hearing God call to him in the night. That’s the way it should work. Jacob, the scoundrel, is in the middle of nowhere.
As he sleeps he has a dream that is more than “just” a dream. He sees a ladder or a stairway set between Heaven and Earth and he sees God’s angels ascending and descending- moving from earth to heaven and heaven to earth.  God stood above the stairway. Or, we can also translate it to read that God stood beside Jacob. God restates the promise He made to Abraham. He says, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” God promises land to Jacob’s offspring- that Jacob will have numerous decedents who will spread across the land- that all the families of the earth will be blessed through his family, and God also promises that He will be with him and will protect him.

Jacob wakes up from his dream and says, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ Jacob was on the run. He was running from the consequences of his swindling and he was in the middle of nowhere and God shows up and speaks a profound blessing and promise to him.  

I can think of numerous times where I have felt God’s presence unexpectedly- I’ve told you about my encounter with God in a bar. I also encountered God in the middle of a noisy and dusty construction site. I once experienced God speaking to me through a homeless man who told me things about my life that he had no way of knowing. On those occasions I felt like Jacob, “surely the Lord is in this place- and I did not know it!” I remember times when I have felt like not a very good Christian, not a very good friend, or father, or priest, and I am surprised to see God’s promise flowing through me blessing others. The scoundrel I am, God’s blessing is present with me.
I don’t know if you ever feel like that. Who am I that God would work through me? What is this place that God would treat it like anything special? As God’s people, God’s promise flows through you. Just as the promise was with Jacob, the scoundrel that he was, so the promise given to Abraham and perfected in Christ rests with us and flows through us bringing God’s blessing to all the families of the world. Not because we deserve it, not because we are anything special, but because God promised it.  
God is continuously pouring His grace on us. Grace is God’s action in our lives that we don’t deserve and we haven’t earned. God doesn’t owe it to us. On the contrary, we are often ignorant and unthankful of the blessings God gives us, and yet he doesn’t stop giving. We, like Jacob can sometimes be scoundrels, all in our own way, and yet God is still giving us his grace- his blessing and fulfilling his promise through us.

We are in a delicate time as the church. We have turned a corner and there is no turning back. There is no going back to the church 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We are being called to be the church now and to prepare it to be the church it will be 20, 30, or 40 years from now. We might feel inadequate to the task, but we are God’s people. We carry the promise. Jacob carried that promise as inadequate as he may have felt. So we now carry that promise. We might be unaware of it. We might want our “normal” lives. We might be happy to be ignored by God until the day he calls us on our death bed. But, we are the people of the promise and he will make his promise come into reality. The stairway between heaven and earth is as busy with angels as it has ever been. There is continuous traffic between heaven and earth. They are continuously working to bring the Kingdom of God into its full reality here on earth. It is a task that we have inherited.  But it is ultimately God’s task that we are invited to participate in. It is not about how much we deserve it. It about God fulfilling His promises- fulfilling his plan to bless the world. He will use scoundrels like us, in the middle of nowhere, to fulfill it. AMEN. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

God works quietly and could be missed by those who aren't looking- Gen 24

Deciding to move to Toronto so I could go to seminary was a big decision that came with lots of things to plan and lots of things we could worry about. We had very little money, and we weren’t completely sure how things were going to work. We had a yard sale and sold most of our furniture and a lot of our belongings.  We weren’t exactly sure what we were going to do about furniture once we got to Toronto. I was pretty sure that was what God was calling me to do, so we moved ahead in trust. One day about a week before we were flying to Toronto I got a phone call. The voice on the other line said, “I understand you are moving into one of the apartments at Wycliffe College. Well the previous renter left a lot of furniture in the apartment. Did you want us to move it out so you can move yours in, or can you use any of it?” So we let him know that anything he wanted to leave we would use because we were coming with nothing.
Before we arrived in Toronto Crystal had been emailing her resume to a number of labs. She didn’t have any responses until we had been in Toronto for four days. It was the only interview she had and her resume was one of dozens. She got the job in the end and the lab was so close that the walk between our front door and her lab was 4 minutes, which is an unheard of commute in Toronto. There were other things that seemed to just fall into place.
Now, I could say that it was all a coincidence. It’s not obviously supernatural. It was nothing that could convince a skeptic. There is no proof of God in those circumstances, but when I remember those events I remember them as God caring for me. I felt like it was a confirmation that I was following God’s leading. I felt the reality of Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” I felt led, and protected, and cared for by an invisible presence.
As I say these words I am conscious of how many conversations I’ve had with people in this room where I’ve repeated the phrase “I don’t believe in coincidence anymore”. You have told me about things that have happened in your life where things have seemed to be connected, when the chances of it being merely random are astronomical. You have gotten money, and just the right amount, just when you needed it. You have picked up the phone and called a friend, just at the right moment. There are moments when it seems like an invisible hand is orchestrating events. We often don’t see it in the moment, unless we are really attentive. Usually, if we see it at all, we see it when we are looking back on it.
Again, it is nothing that would convince a skeptic. Many would call it good luck. Many would call it coincidence. But, those of us that believe that God is at work in our daily lives see his hand leading and guiding. Sometimes we don’t see it. And sometimes it all seems to be going wrong, but there are those moments when it all seems to be led.    
We read about one of these moments in our reading from Genesis 24. Abraham sends one of his servants to go find a wife for his son, Isaac. Isaac is the child who carries the promise God gave to Abraham and his family. So Isaac’s wife will be the one who will continue the promise by giving birth to the family who carry God’s blessing to the world. The servant returns to Abraham’s original home to be a matchmaker, which doesn’t seem all that holy, but it is actually a holy task. He comes to a spring in Abraham’s old stomping ground and asks God to guide him.  He asks that a woman who comes to the spring and gives him a drink and then offers his camels a drink would be the one God chooses.
Abraham’s servant says, “’Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, 'Please let me drink.' She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels.' So I drank, and she also watered the camels”.
God doesn’t show up in a cloud. No audible voice from the heavens is heard. No one sees an angel. And yet, God is present and God is active.
The story continues as the servant goes and meets the girl’s family, but before that he adorns her with jewelry. And immediately the servant attributes this meeting to God. He prays out of thankfulness and asks for further discernment. The servant says, “Then I bowed my head and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master's kinsman for his son. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left."… How is it that he expects God to speak? Sometimes people really do expect an audible voice. I do know people who have heard an audible voice, but it is more likely that the servant is listening through the circumstances that are before him. Rebekah grants her permission and her family grants permission and she goes with the servant. To the servant, this is God’s leading.
After their long journey they finally come close to Isaac. Isaac had been walking meditatively through a field. Rebekah sees Isaac and she falls off her camel. Before she knows who he is she seems to be drawn to him and asks, "Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?"           Isaac and Rebekah are married and we read “he loved her”. It seems like a fairytale. The prince finds Cinderella.
            The servant saw God’s hand guiding these events. There was no obvious supernatural event. The sea did not divide. On the mountain the prophet Elijah learns that God is not in the violent wind, earthquake, or the fire (1 Kings 19). We so often expect God to show up in our lives in dramatic ways, but that is not His primary way of being with us. Primarily God is with us quietly. Elijah encountered God in “sheer silence”, not in the other dramatic ways. It was in the silence, which is so often why we miss it. Our lives are busy and noisy and mostly unreflective. So it’s no wonder we can go for long periods without sensing the hand of God in our lives.
I heard the philosopher Dallas Willard once say that you will not truly believe that God is good unless you believe that God has done good to you personally. It will not do to believe that God has been good to others, but not to you. To believe that God is good means that you have to believe God has been good to you personally. If we are to believe that God is good, then we have to be willing to see God’s hand in our lives. Will it be conclusive proof? No. Will we possibly get it wrong? Yes. We will have to walk the line between romanticism and cynicism. To have a mature understanding of God’s hand in our lives we will need discerning meditative hearts. We will need to be able to see God’s hand in the blessings of our life, but even more difficult, we will have to learn to see God’s hand in the midst of our sufferings. We don’t see him as the one who causes the suffering, but we see Him as present in the midst of it. And we will have to see God’s hand as blessing and shaping of our souls which is leading us to our ultimate joy.

This story on one level is about finding a wife for Isaac, but I think we can learn a profound lesson from the servant who was willing to see God’s hand actively guiding him in silence ways. It is easy to get cynical and ask, “Where is God? Where is He in the story? Where is He in our lives?” When we look around we don’t see him. We have never met our guardian angels. Most of us have never seen a profound and unquestionable miracle that would prove God’s reality in our lives. We sometimes ask for obvious signs from God. But, like Elijah, we learn that God’s presence isn’t primarily in the dramatic, but in the sheer silence, and only perceived by loving, contemplative, and discerning attention.  We will become closer in our walk with God when we are able to even see God in the midst of our pain and see even those moments as gifts from a good God who loves us and wants the best for us.  God does not work primarily in oddities and in spectacle. God works in the usual ebb and flow of our daily lives. Our job is to discern and be ready to trust Him and then to be thankful. Amen.  

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