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. 

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