Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 29:15-28

Read the text here: Genesis 29:15-28
What Goes Around…
We are about halfway through the Jacob cycle and it might be a good time to pause and consider where we are in the story.  We began this entire set of stories with God speaking to Abraham – 1. you will be a great nation; 2. you will be blessed; 3. so that you will be a blessing to the nations.  This promise is at the foundation of the entirety of all three narratives.  With the Jacob cycle we have shifted the focus from the concern of securing the inheritance and having children of promise to the issue of blessing.  And Isaac, Rebekah, Esau and Jacob have all bought into the belief that God’s blessings are scarce and unique.  This consequently fuels the conflict that divides this family.  Jacob tricks Esau into giving up his birthright (which would have included the blessing – Genesis 25); Jacob and Rebekah conspire to deceive and steal Isaac’s blessing for Esau (Genesis 27); Esau is so incredibly angry about this betrayal he resolves to kill his twin brother, Jacob.  And so Jacob becomes a fugitive, running away for his life.  (Genesis 28)  Stopping to rest he dreams, and in the dream he sees a ramp with God’s messengers ascending and descending and then God descends and stands right next to Jacob and repeats the promise: 1. you will return to the land and be a great nation; 2. you will be showered with blessings – I will be present with you no matter what; 3. so that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through you.

In this text Jacob finally arrives at his Uncle Laban’s camp.  Now we met Rebekah’s brother Laban earlier when Abraham sent a servant to secure a wife for Isaac.  And we noted at that time that he was crafty and manipulative.  The next few chapters are interesting to see how these two very manipulative men manage to trick each other – Laban gets the upper hand first, but eventually he is bested by Jacob.  That is later in the story – for now, Laban takes the initiative and perhaps suggests that Jacob should be working if he is going to stay.  They agree that Jacob’s wages for working 7 years will be the hand of Rachel in marriage.  But at the wedding Laban pulls a fast one and substitutes the older sister Leah and Jacob has to work another 7 years for Rachel (See note below).  It is poetic justice that the deceiver gets deceived, that the trickster gets tricked, and that the issue is about who is born first.  This, of course, was the issue in Jacob’s deceit when he stole Esau’s blessing.  So what goes around comes around.  And eventually Jacob marries both sisters and in the text that follows we learn that Leah bears 7 children (6 sons and 1 daughter), her maid Zilpah bears 2 sons, Rachel’s maid Bilhah bears 2 sons and eventually Rachel bears two sons – Joseph and Benjamin (though Benjamin’s birth, and Rachel’s death in childbirth do not come about until we are into the Joseph cycle – Genesis 35.  So, that is twelve sons – who are the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel + 1 daughter, Dinah.

This is all pretty mundane stuff.  And that is the point.  Jacob and Laban haggling and tricking each other over wages for working with the livestock, negotiating and arranging marriages, human deceit and betrayal - that is all very human stuff.  But yet, God’s promises are fulfilled though these very mundane, simple and less than holy events.  In the dream God descends to Jacob – comes down to his level.  In the dream God promises that God will always be with Jacob no matter what and that the promise will be fulfilled.  But God doesn’t zap it into being – God works through the mundane events of daily life; through the conflicts and the disappointments and the struggles; God’s promises comes to fulfillment because God is active in the nitty-gritty of human life, even the messy parts and even the dark parts.

This is what “Incarnation” is all about.  Every year at Christmas we use this word – “Incarnation.”  But then it is like we put it away with all the Christmas decorations.  But we simply can’t do that – Incarnation is central to how we understand how God acts in the world and how we experience God in our lives.  And this story reminds us that God is at work through the ordinariness of human life – with all of its joys and sorrows, struggles and celebrations and highs and lows.  Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus – through the cross we are reminded that God is at work in our lives and we experience the presence of God usually not in supernatural ways, but – like Jacob – in ordinary events and interactions: a kindness expressed, people coming together to feed the hungry, to care for those who are lost, welcoming the sojourner, healing the sick, comforting the grieving and so on and so on – we can go on all day and we will never exhaust all of the ways we experience God in our lives.  Too often I think we miss it because we aren’t looking in the right place – we expect supernatural, miraculous events.  But instead we get a cross – we get the water of Baptism – we get the bread and wine of Holy Communion – we get ordinary men and women striving to live out their faith in the world in a vast variety of ways, some great and some small, but all essential.

We cannot exhaust God’s blessings.  God showers blessings upon us all freely.  We cannot escape from God’s presence.  We cannot earn God’s love – it is given freely.  In his interactions with his Uncle Laban, Jacob learns that what goes around comes around – but nevertheless God is at work and is active with him, and with us – now and always and nothing can separate us…
(1) Part of the difficulty with this text is that the process for courtship and marriage is vastly different from our own time.  In antiquity and in the bible marriage is a property transaction!  Love is not the driving force and is basically irrelevant.  Isaac loves Rebekah, we are told in passing, but it questionable whether she feels the same; Jacob is mad about Rachel, but what exactly does that mean and regardless we are never told how Rachel feels.  Indeed she has no choice about it at all.  Laban, her father makes the deal without consulting her (at least Rebekah got the right to refuse!) and then switches her out with her older sister, Leah.  Neither of these girls had anything to say about this.  They were property to be traded and used as a commodity. This is not a model for love and marriage for us today.  We have come a long way and we have come to understand that both partners have to be committed to a marriage for it to be successful.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 27:41-45, 28:10-19a

Read the text here: Genesis 28:10-19
A recording of the sermon - preached on Sunday, July 20 is available here: Wartburg Parish

“On the Run” or “Jacob Didn’t Climb No Ladder”
I am climbing Jacob’s ladder, I am climbing Jacob’s ladder… Every step gets higher, higher, Every step gets higher, higher…  Because of this well-known camp song this story in Genesis 28 may easily be the best known of entire set of Patriarchal/Matriarchal story cycles.  But at the same time just because we know the song and have a familiarity with at least the overall theme of the story doesn’t mean we get the point, in fact I think the opposite is true – we often miss the point of this story because the popular and well-known song provides an image that completely contradicts the story itself – who is actually climbing the ladder (which in Hebrew is more of a ramp and not really a ladder)?  Hint – it’s not Jacob!
Last week we focused on the first part of chapter 27 and heard how Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspired to cheat Jacob’s twin brother Esau out of the Blessing from his father, Isaac, which would have bestowed on him the inheritance of all of his father’s property and possessions – including making Esau the heir of the promise.  But Jacob tricked his father, stole the blessing and then has to run away to escape from Esau’s anger.  Jacob is now at his most vulnerable, he is tired and afraid and he encamps at an anonymous place in order to get some rest.  As he sleeps the Lord God – Yahweh – the God of his fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah – comes to him.  In the dream he sees a ramp that extends from heaven to earth and on this ramp the messengers of God are ascending and descending.  And then God comes to him, standing next to or behind or hovering above him (the Hebrew is vague here) but the point is that it is God who descends to Jacob.  God then reminds Jacob of the promise that he will remain faithful to Jacob and Jacob responds by honoring God.
So what is the point of the ladder/ramp?  A couple thoughts – first, this is not the central point of the dream.  The song makes it seem as if it is the most important thing in the story, but it is not.  God’s descending to Jacob and re-affirming the promise is the most important part of this story.  The ramp however tells us something really important about God – and that is heaven is involved with earth!  Heaven is not up there and earth down here; God is not watching impassively from a distance.  God’s messengers in this dream are busy at work being involved with human life.  Heaven is not some remote Godly place far away – heaven has to do with earth! 
And 2nd – It is the messengers of God who are using the ramp.  Jacob does not climb it, and no one else does either.  The problem with the song is that it misses this point and seems to suggest that what we Christians are called to do is to climb higher and higher towards Godliness – but this is a direct contradiction of the dream.  It is just the opposite.  Jacob is a scumbag.  He has cheated his twin brother.  He has deceived his father.  He has run away as a coward in order to preserve himself.  He is not climbing anything toward Godliness – just the opposite in fact.  But yet, he is given this vision to remind him that despite his unworthiness, despite his unfaithfulness, despite his sin, God is still involved with him, God still loves him and God will continue to be present with him – no matter what.
The center of God’s promise to Jacob is exactly this message – “I am with you!”  And this is a message that is repeated over and over and over again in the bible’s history of salvation.  The Gospel of Matthew begins with the proclamation that the child Jesus is to be called “Emmanuel” that means “God with us!” (Matthew 1:23).  And at the end of the Gospel in Matthew 28:20, Jesus’ last words to his disciples are this: “and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age!”  And consider again the beautiful words of our Psalm – 139:
7Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
9If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast.
Not only does God promise to be with us no matter what, but the promise to Jacob and to us is that we can’t get rid of God, no matter how hard we try.  God will remain with us always no matter what.  As Paul says, “What can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus… Nothing can separate us…”
Jacob is running away, he is controlled by fear; Jacob is vulnerable and it is in the midst of his fear and vulnerability that God comes to him to assure him of God’s everlasting and never-failing and unconditional presence.  What about us?  When we are at our most vulnerable, in the midst of our fears, in the midst of our uncertainties God comes to us and assures us that nothing can separate us from God.  No ladder climbing required!  God descends into the midst of our world and our lives and is present with us - forever.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 25:19-34 – The Jacob Cycle

Read the text here: Genesis 25:19-34
Esau & Jacob – A Couple of Wild and Crazy Guys!
We move into a new cycle of stories with our Genesis lesson for this weekend.  Up until now we have been focused on the story of Abraham and Sarah and Abraham’s sons Ishmael and then Isaac.  This weekend we move to a new set of stories that are centered on Isaac’s sons – Esau and (especially) Jacob.  At the same time there is also a shift in the focus from God’s promise and the fulfillment of this promise – in particular the promise of being a mighty and populous nation – to the issue of blessing. 
God’s promise to Abraham in chapter 12 (repeated in chapter 16) is in three parts – 1. Abraham and Sarah would be a great and mighty nation, and in order for this to be fulfilled they would have to have at least one son, who (eventually) is born and named Isaac; 2. God will bless this people of promise freely and unconditionally; 3. All of this is so that they might be a blessing to all the peoples and nations of the world.  Throughout the Abraham cycle we see that Abraham and Sarah continually mess up, they take things into their own hands, they are unfaithful at times but yet God is faithful and God brings the promise to fulfillment.
In the Jacob cycle the focus shifts to the 2nd part of the promise – the unconditional blessings which God has promised to bestow on the heir and his progeny. It seems pretty straightforward but it is shocking that as we read this cycle of stories we see that promise #2 brings nothing but conflict and deceit.  If there is one thing that stands out in this cycle it is what a despicable human being Jacob is.  He is deceitful, underhanded and dishonest.  His dealings with his brother Esau (urged on by their mother, by the way!) are nothing short of reprehensible; the interactions with Laban are unique in that between the two of them – Laban and Jacob – we have two men who are masters at deceit, manipulation and dishonesty; Jacob’s relationship with and treatment of his first wife Leah is pretty horrible and then if that all were not bad enough as we move into the Joseph cycle we find him playing favorites with his own sons to the point that he has instigated so much hatred amongst them that 11 of them band together in order to try to murder Jacob’s favorite son – their brother!
But yet, God’s blessings are bestowed – freely and unconditionally – even upon Jacob.  Looking at this particular text and a general overview of the entire cycle there are a couple things that emerge about the issue of blessings:
1.              God’s blessings are subversive – they subvert the established social order and expectations.  In the story of the stolen blessing (chapter 27) when Rebekah and Jacob conspire to take advantage of an old, ailing and blind Isaac in order to steal the blessing away from the first born Esau, we see that the entire story in founded on the principal of “primogeniture” which mandates that the first born son inherits everything – possessions and promises from God! – and the younger son or sons get nothing.  But God shows favor to Jacob, even though Jacob is the 2nd born son – and this is not the only time in the bible where God subverts the established and expected birth order – Isaac is the 2nd born son, Joseph is somewhere down the line but not the oldest, King David is the youngest, Solomon is not the oldest son and on and on.  God is not bound by human conventions and restrictions and expectations.  God’s blessings flow freely despite the restrictions we humans want to put upon God’s blessings.
2.              God’s blessings are inclusive – Just because Jacob steals Esau’s blessing doesn’t mean that God then turns away from Esau.  God continues to be present and shower blessings upon Esau.  We might want to deny that a particular person or group of people are also beloved of God and are as blessed by God as we are – but God’s blessings cannot be contained and God does not withhold them.
3.              God’s blessings are not like life insurance – Just because one is blessed by God doesn’t mean that God will fish us out of the ups and downs and the joys and sorrows of life; Just because we are chosen and blessed by God doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen or that we are immune from suffering and loss.  Jacob suffers a lot.  Much of it is the result of his own bad decisions, but still some of his suffering comes from his painful and difficult interactions with God as well.  It is too easy and simple to equate success in life with God’s favor and blessing and failure, loss and suffering in life to God withholding God’s favor and blessing.  But it doesn’t work that way.  In our lesson next week Jacob will have a vision of God’s messengers ascending and descending on a ladder from heaven to earth to heaven.  The message of this dream is that God is involved in human life – all of human life.  God is especially present with those who are suffering. 
4.              God’s blessings are not earned – they are given unconditionally.  Why does God choose Jacob and continue to remain with Jacob despite his terrible decisions and life choices.  Certainly Jacob would not have earned this as he does nothing whatsoever that is worthy of earning God’s favor.  He is a sinner in the full sense of the word – just like us.  We too are not able to earn our way into God’s favor; we cannot be good enough to earn God’s blessings.  But thanks be to God that God’s blessings are not based on the things that we do, or the things that we believe or the people we know or our family position or anything else.  God’s blessings are based solely and completely on God’s steadfast love – God’s unmerited and completely unconditional grace.

The audio for this sermon (which differs quite a lot from what is above) can be found at the Wartburg Parish Website

A brief outline of the Jacob cycle:
The birth of Esau and Jacob / Esau sells his birthright to Jacob – Chapter 25
Jacob (and Rebekah) steal the Isaac’s blessing from Esau. – Chapter 27
Jacob flees; Jacob’s first dream (the ladder) – Chapter 28
Jacob and Laban – Marriage to Leah and then to Rachel – Chapters 29-30
Jacob flees – in caught by Laban and they reconcile – Chapter 31
Jacob’s confrontation with Esau / Dream #2 (Jacob wrestles with God) – Chapter 32
Conclusion of the Jacob cycle – setting up the Joseph cycle – Chapters 35-36

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 24

Read the text here: Genesis 24:1-67
Blessings All Around

We have come to the end of the Abraham and Sarah cycle of stories and next week we will move into the Jacob cycle.  Often I think we look upon these Biblical characters as larger than life and as models of great and heroic faith.  One of my goals in preaching on these texts for this summer is to try to bring them down to earth and to help us see that they are just human beings like you and me, who can at moments exhibit great faith and courage (such as when Abraham packs up and moves his household south on the basis of God’s command – chapter 12; or even when Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah – chapter 22).  But then there are also moments of great failure, weakness and unfaithfulness (like all of their dealings with Hagar and Ishmael – chapters 17 and 21, and Sarah’s cynical laughter in response to the 3 visitors – chapter 18).  In this they are like us.
So we come then to chapter 24.  Sarah dies in chapter 23 just prior to the events narrated in our text for this weekend. The Rabbis tell the story that when Abraham told Sarah that he believed God had commanded him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering and that he almost completed the act before he was stopped at the last moment and offered the ram caught in the ticket instead, Sarah was so distressed by hearing this that it caused her death.  We can certainly understand why the ancient Rabbi’s saw this as Sarah’s reaction, but her death also reveals to Abraham another problem.  IF God’s promise that the descendants of Abraham will be as plentiful as the stars in heaven (Chapter 16), then one unmarried son is not going to be sufficient.  And so Abraham sets about the task of securing a wife for his son Isaac.
Now, the process of courtship and finding a wife in antiquity is really quite foreign to our 21st century American experience.  Marriages were arranged.  Marriages were more like property transactions and the over-riding issue was children and inheritance.  Love and attraction were completely irrelevant.  The fact that Isaac falls in love with Rebekah by the end of the story (24:67) is unusual and not even important to the narrative.  It is also important to note that there is no indication that Rebekah felt the same affection for Isaac (except for the fact that when she first sees him – according to the Hebrew – she falls off her camel – but you could take that a couple different ways!), in fact next week we will find in Rebekah a very manipulative woman who manages to completely undermine her husband’s will at the expense of her older son, Esau.  But for now, this story introduces us to a colorful cast of characters – in addition to Rebekah (who is really quite a remarkable woman, able to draw hundreds of gallons of water from the well to provide water for the 10 thirsty camels – camels can drink upwards to 30 gallons of water each in a single sitting!)  We also meet her brother Laban, who is very interested in furthering his own wealth and influence (see 24:30!) and will become a very important player in future events with his nephew, Rebekah’s favorite son, Jacob; and then there is the very faithful but very shrewd servant who is able to avoid all the land mines of these delicate negotiations.  Throughout this all, God purposes are fulfilled, the covenant is maintained but yet in this story there is no direct intervention to make sure this occurs.
And this is the point.  This is an ordinary story, about ordinary people following the dictates and expectations of their society – securing a wife, negotiating the terms, a slave following the direction of his master, a young woman fulfilling her responsibility to her family as she understood it.  There are no lightning bolts, burning bushes or voices from heaven here.  But yet God is present and active throughout the story.  And this is the message for us – that despite our human expectations nevertheless most of the time “the workings of God are not spectacular, not magical, not oddities.  Disclosure from God comes by steady discernment and by readiness to trust the resilience that is present in the course of daily affairs.” (1) That is where we find God’s presence most of the time: in the course of our ordinary lives.  And it in this context that we experience God’s blessings and gifts, no lightning bolts, no epiphanies, but rather in the simple act of offering a drink of cool water to a parched and weary traveller.
“For its seeming ordinariness and simplicity this narrative is a mature reflection on the faithfulness of God, … in retrospect.  We do not always know the gifts of God in advance.  But given the perspective of faith, we can in subsequent reflection discern the amazing movement of God in events we had not noticed or which we had assigned to other causes.” (1)
So I invite you to do just that.  Take a moment to reflect on the gifts that God has bestowed upon you so freely; upon the blessings you have received, but especially the gifts and blessings that you may take for granted, or overlook completely.  And then let us give thanks to God for these wonderful gifts, for the blessings that God so richly bestows upon us.  Amen!

(1) Quotes from “Interpretation Commentary Series: Genesis” by Dr. Walter Bruggemann, page 201.