Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17
Last week, we heard the strange story of how God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and then at the last minute called out to Abraham not to do it, and then provided a ram for him to sacrifice as a substitute. And Pastor Victoria did a wonderful job talking about that story with you all. Today, again, we jump forward several chapters in the story of Genesis, so I’m going to summarize what has happened in between last week’s story and this week’s. Scholars don’t know how old Isaac was when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice him. Many pictures that have been drawn of this story depict Isaac as a young boy, but some scholars think he could have been older than that. Well, this is what happens next in the story: Sarah, Isaac’s mother, dies; a very old Abraham realizes that it’s time for Isaac to marry and sends his servant back to the country he came from to get Isaac a wife; the servant finds Rebekah in the old country and brings her back; Isaac and Rebekah become husband and wife; Abraham dies; and then, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. Even in the womb, the two boys are fighting and jostling each other; poor Rebekah must have been absolutely miserable, because she says, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” And so she asks the Lord what is going on, and God tells her that the two boys are going to be two nations; one will be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger. When the boys are born, we find out they are fraternal twins, not identical, because Esau, the oldest, is red and hairy, and Jacob, the younger, is smooth-skinned. And as the boys grow up, the family dynamics become messed up. Parents, you know you’re not supposed to have favorites when you have more than one child. Or, at the very least, if you do have a favorite, you’re supposed to keep it a secret and treat each child fairly. Well, Isaac and Rebekah messed up: they each had a clear favorite. Isaac favored Esau, because Esau was a hunter and Isaac loved the taste of the game that Esau brought back. But Rebekah loved Jacob, because Jacob was quiet and stayed among the tents.
Right before today’s story, we read that Esau went hunting, and he must not have had good luck, because he came in from the fields and he was famished. But Jacob was at home cooking a lentil stew. When Esau demanded some stew, Jacob demanded payment. And the payment he demanded was the birthright. As the elder son, Esau by birth was entitled to certain things: the larger share of the property of his father Isaac, for example. Apparently Esau was so focused on his present needs: the fact that he was starving to death; that he couldn’t think about his future needs, which would be the inheritance he would eventually receive from his father. And so he sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.
And now we arrive at today’s story. In these days, a blessing from father to eldest son was extremely important. It was different from the birthright; a blessing meant that the father, nearing the end of his life, was conferring his authority as head of the family on to his eldest son in order to rule over the clan and to carry on in his father’s name. Isaac was ready to confer this blessing upon his eldest son, Esau. Rebekah, on the other hand, is determined that the prophecy she heard when she was pregnant with the boys will come true, and that Jacob, her favorite, should receive the blessing and the authority from his father. So, she carries out this elaborate scheme to disguise Jacob, and Isaac is deceived and gives Jacob the blessing instead of Esau. It’s a long story and that’s why we just have sections of it today. What we don’t get is Esau’s reaction when he finds out that Jacob has tricked him: he is furious with Jacob and threatens to kill him. So Rebekah tells Jacob to flee for his life and go back to her family in the old country; to live there until Esau’s anger cools off, and oh, by the way, while you’re there Jacob, find a wife.
So Jacob leaves his family and everything he knows and runs for his life. He stops for the night in an ordinary place that looks like any other place and lies down to sleep. And God comes to Jacob in his dreams and stands beside him and speaks to him all of the promises that God had previously spoken to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, and father, Isaac: the promises of land, a multitude of offspring, and that his descendants would be a blessing to all of the families of the earth. God also promises that God will be with Jacob wherever Jacob goes, and God will not leave Jacob until God has done what God has promised. Let’s think about this for a minute: Jacob was not a great guy up to this point in the story. His mother loved him, but that’s about all that could be said of him. Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of what rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that a father gives the eldest son. Jacob is now a fugitive from Esau’s righteous anger. And yet: God appears to Jacob and God gives Jacob the same promises once given to Isaac. This is absolutely incredible!
There are two messages that I see for us in this story. First, God works through anyone for God’s purposes, and that means anyone. We talk about “heroes of the Bible”; well, I’d like us to stop using that term. A hero implies somebody perfect and someone with supernatural powers. The stories in the Bible are stories of flawed and fallible human beings, just like we are. And yet, God works through them to bring a blessing upon the world. I’d like to tell a story of a modern-day person to illustrate this point.
A few years ago, a woman named Kelly Gissendaner came to national attention. She was a resident of Georgia and the only woman on death row in Georgia; she had been convicted several years before this of plotting with her lover to kill her husband. While she was in prison, she converted to Christianity and she reformed her life. She showed regret and sorrow for what she had done. She took theology classes in prison and met and befriended esteemed German theologian Juergen Moltmann. She became a de facto chaplain to women who were new to the prison, helping them adjust and speaking with them about the difference that Christ had made in her life. And when the state of Georgia denied her appeals for clemency, people rallied around her and sent petitions to the state Board of Paroles. And although the state denied those appeals and executed her on September 30, 2015, her life and her death witnessed to the power of Christ to love her, a convicted murderer, and testified that God truly can work God’s purposes through anyone God chooses.
God loved Jacob, a fugitive on the run from his angry brother, so much that God promised to bless Jacob and to be with him forever. God loved Kelly Gissendaner, a convicted murderer, and blessed many other people through her witness. And that’s how much God loves each one of us. And God promises something else to us, too. Just like God promised to be with Jacob, God promises to be with each one of us, no matter what happens to us in life. God will never leave us or forsake us. Even when it feels like the world is crumbling around us; even when it feels like everything is against us, that is exactly where God is. If God was with Jacob when he was fleeing from his brother and if God was with Jesus on the day he died on the cross, then certainly God is with us, too, through everything that happens to us in our lives.
And that’s the second message that I think we can take from this story. When Jacob awakens from his dreams, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” We talk about bringing Christ into the world and sharing the good news of Christ with those who have not heard it. And yet, what if Christ is already in the places where we are going? There was nothing extraordinary about the place where Jacob chose to lay his head that night; nothing which would have indicated that this was a holy place. And yet, God was in that place and made it holy. And God has a habit of appearing in unexpected places. Who would have ever thought for example, that God would be present in a newborn baby laid in an animal’s feeding trough, whose parents were a peasant couple known only to their family? And yet, that is where God was.
What are those ordinary places where God has gone ahead of us, is present, and is waiting to encounter us? Do we see God in the face of a friend who calls and says that she’s had a hard week and needs someone to talk to? Do we see God in the faces of the new neighbors who move in to the places next door? Do we see God’s presence in the faces of the people who live in the communities around our church buildings? How can we become more aware of God active and living in our daily lives, so that there is no difference between the holy space of our church buildings and the holy space of the places and the people around us?
These are questions that we should be thinking about and meditating on as we seek to renew our congregations and get out of our buildings and minister to and with the people around us. It is only when we see that God is present all around us, in the ordinary places and events of our lives, that we can be open to God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done to ourselves or to others. God loves us and promises to be with us always, through both good times and bad times, when we’re doing okay and when we feel like we’ve totally screwed up. And there is no place and no time when God is not present with us. I believe that God delights in the times when we say, with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Surely the Lord is in this place, right now and wherever we may be. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit would give us the grace to recognize God in unexpected places and unexpected times. Amen.