Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Real Human Being: Sermon on Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

"The Dream of Jacob" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

There are two sides to every story.


Take Jacob, that ne’er-do-well, the one whom Hebrew Biblical scholar Renita Weems called “the first real human being” in the book of Genesis. Today we see him at his worst and also perhaps at his best. But which moment is which? Is he at his worst when stealing his brother’s blessing or his best? Is he flying high when he receives his angelic and godly dream-visitation or is he at his lowest?

Perhaps beginning at the beginning of Jacob’s story would be helpful. Readers of Genesis first meet Jacob while he is still in the womb—in chapter 25, the pregnant Rebekah is at her wit’s end because there is such a battle raging inside her. She prays, and has the distinction of being answered, very clearly and directly.  God tells her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Congratulations, Rebekah! You and Isaac will be the proud parents of twins! And… they’re not going to get along so well.

The boys make their entrance into the world with the second-born one gripping the heel of the firstborn, and that second-born is Jacob, a name that means “heel-puller.” That’s a Hebrew euphemism for “scoundrel.” We are also given the helpful information that the firstborn, Esau, is remarkably hairy, and also that he will grow up to be a good hunter. The reader also learns that the parents do not hesitate to play favorites. “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28).

And we’re off. In our passage today, we enter the story just as Isaac, described now as old and practically blind, sends his firstborn Esau to hunt up some of his favorite food for a kind of final celebratory meal before he expires (27:1-4). Then we skip over some verses and come to a scene between Jacob and his mother Rebekah. She is dressing him in Esau’s best clothes and even fitting his hands and neck out with animal pelts, preparing him to go into his father disguised as his older brother.

We witness the deception. Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac senses something amiss, touches the young man and talks to him, and knows it’s Jacob’s voice he hears. Still, the animal pelts on the hands do their trick: It may be Jacob’s voice, but it seems to be Esau’s unmistakably hair hands that have brought him the savory food he loves. Isaac gives his son his blessing. The wrong son.

There are two sides to every story. In one sense, this is Jacob’s moment of triumph! This is the moment in which the oracle spoken by God to his mother has come true: the elder shall serve the younger. The blessing is his!

What exactly is this blessing, though? It’s a good question. In our day, we use words of blessing almost casually, often superstitiously—“God bless you!” we say, whether we mean those words as a hopeful commendation of someone into God’s care, or simply responding to the fact that they’ve just sneezed. God bless you!

In the biblical era, a blessing was not casual, nor was it superstitious. A blessing was potent. It was efficacious, closer to our understanding of a sacrament, even bordering on an incantation. Words of blessing helped to both create and recognize a deep reality, a reality with all the power and authority of God at its center. If we read the words of the blessing Isaac confers on Jacob (our passage skips that part too) we realize exactly what the blessing does: This blessing settles once and for all the issue of succession; it gives Jacob all the rights and privileges of the firstborn son, including the inheritance of the covenant promises first given by God to Abraham. The blessing functions as a last will and testament.

And so, after skipping some more verses, when we find Jacob settled on his stone pillow dreaming of angels and stairways to heaven, and we find God confirming, re-iterating the covenant promise to him—it is a glorious moment, isn’t it? We spoke of it at the session meeting the other night. We imagined the night sky in the desert, a thousand years or so before Christ—no noise pollution, Jacob seeing what we know as the Milky Way but calling it by its Hebrew name, Nehar di-nur, the Fire-Stream; and then that stunning dreamed visitation from none other than God, the Shekinah, the Divine Presence. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Just imagining the scene makes your heart race. What a glorious moment, in what Jacob calls “the house of God, the gate of heaven.”

There are two sides to every story.

We can hear the other side of the story by listening to the skipped verses.

We enter the story just as old and blind Isaac sends his firstborn Esau to hunt up some of his favorite food. The verses we skip give us vital information: “Now, Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau…” (25:5a). In the skipped parts we learn, is not the dreamer Jacob who conjured up the deception against his father and brother—it is his mother and champion, Rebekah. There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she is buying her son a stairway to heaven. Rebekah speaks to her son—no, commands him—to obey her words down to the smallest detail: he is to bring his father food, disguised as his brother, Rebekah says, “…so that he may bless you before he dies” (25:10). Remember, that potent blessing, that blessing that will ensure Jacob receives all the inheritance promised to the firstborn. Jacob objects. He points out the obvious problem with the plan—Esau is a big, hairy guy. But then he reveals his real fear: “Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him…” (25:12).

And now we see Jacob, not as a one-dimensional character, someone we can just file away under “scoundrel.” Now we see Jacob for what he is: a real human being. One whose life is suffused with the presence of God, to be sure. But one who knows moments of doubt as well as fearlessness. One who knows humility as well as jealousy. One who is anguished by the thought that his father might think ill of him.

A real human being. Like you, like me.

He goes through with it, of course. We witness his success, obtaining that potent blessing. What we don’t see—because we skipped those verses—is his brother’s reaction, as well as his father’s, when they both come to understand what has happened. His father’s violent trembling (27:33).  Esau’s “exceedingly great and bitter cry… ‘Bless me also, Father!’” (27:34). And then his heartbreaking last-ditch question, “Have you only one blessing father?” And then more loud, anguished weeping. And finally, a steely resolve. “I will kill my brother Jacob” (27:38, 41).

There are two sides to every story. After the triumph of winning the blessing, Jacob learns from his mother that Esau wants his hide, and so he runs. He runs away from the mother with whom he has been allied in this family drama, as well as the father who unwittingly blessed him. He runs. In twenty years, he will manage to see his father one last time shortly before he dies. He will never see his mother again.

And so we find him on his stony pillow. I have been on that stony pillow. Have you? Have you found yourself lying awake, in the desert of your own anxiety? Thinking things will never be right again. Thinking, oh no. Thinking, what now? But then, a dream. A ladder has been set up, and its base is set on the earth—the dry desert ground where there is nothing but a rock for a pillow, and nothing but tears for food. And yet, somehow, impossibly, the ladder reaches to heaven, too, and the angels coming and going, rising and falling, climbing and descending, testify: Heaven and earth are connected. And the words of God testify too: “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” (28:15).

“Surely God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.”

It is easy to imagine God’s presence beneath a glorious array of stars on a brilliant desert night. It is much harder to imagine God’s presence in a barren landscape of fear, and sorrow, and loss. Jacob has won the blessing, but so far, the cold, hard fact is, all he has to show for it is the knowledge that his brother wants to kill him, and the truth that he faces a long and lonely exile.

And yet he rises from the dream to declare:

“Surely God was in this place.”

God was in the place of fear. God was in the place of sorrow. God was in the place of loss. He never imagined it, we never imagine it. But it’s true.

In the Presbyterian Daily Prayer book, you can find a Friday prayer of thanksgiving that pulls me up short, each and every time I encounter it. In it, we give thanks for “the presence of Christ in our weakness and suffering.” The first time I saw it, I actually laughed. It sounded absurd. But the more I pray it, the more I know it is true.

Surely, God is in this place, and I didn’t know it.

God is in the last place we would expect. God is there in our joys, in our triumphs, of course. God is present in things that are beautiful and true, and moments that make our hearts sing. And that’s what we expect.

What we don’t expect is for God to be present in our worst humiliations, our hours of sadness, our moments of utter confusion. In our betrayals, given and received. In our weakness. In our suffering. But God is there. We just didn’t know it.

Know it now. God is here. In every hour. In every moment. Working the divine purpose out, with and without our assistance, using likely and unlikely real human beings. Like you. Like me. When the sun shines, when the stars twinkle, when the clouds mirror our mood, when the rain rushes into the basement. God is here, in this place. Know it, real human beings. Know it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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