Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 12, 2020
Genesis 25:19-34 Commentary
Here we are, stuck in Ordinary Time. We’ve spent half the church year celebrating the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, but now the fireworks are over. Now we are plodding along through ordinary time. Except this time is extraordinary, too, because God is walking with us each step of the way.
That’s the focus of our Old Testament readings which take us through these fascinating stories of our predecessors on this journey, the Patriarchs of ancient Israel. These sad words from Milton’s Paradise Lost set the stage for these stories. Here are Adam and Eve forced to leave Paradise because of their sin:
“The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
They hold each other’s hands because they have let go of God’s hands. Now they wandered alone, on “their solitary way,” without God.
But then, God reached down and took the hand of Abram in covenantal faithfulness. Yahweh promised to walk with him and his descendants throughout their generations. On their part, they must “walk before me and be blameless.” (Genesis 12) Now, in Ordinary Time we are following their covenantal journey to the Promised Land, so that we may learn how to “walk before me and be blameless” in our journey.
Having followed Abraham and Sarah from his ancestral home in Haran to their grave in Canaan, and having just watched their son Isaac take a wife from that ancestral home, we now meet the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. We will focus on the second one, Jacob.
Jacob was one of the great figures in the early history of God’s plan to save the world. He was one of the chosen, chosen by God to be saved and to be the source of salvation for the world. He would become Israel, the father of twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. And, most significantly, out of his lineage would come the Christ who would save the world. He was called a prince of God. He was one of the great saints, a hero of the faith.
But he was not a nice man. Indeed, he was a great sinner—a scoundrel, a cheat, a deceiver, a schemer, as we see in this story and in the partner story in Genesis 27. Rather than walk hand in hand with his covenant God, resting in the promises of the covenant, he engaged God in hand to hand combat, wrestling with God and with the people in his life.
It is fruitful to study him, because he is me, and you. Perhaps in understanding God’s way with him, we will gain some insight into the meaning of God’s way with us. We’re often mystified by God’s involvement in our lives. Why did God do this in my life? Why did he allow that? Where has God gone? Why is my life so hard if I am God’s covenant child? Perhaps as we watch Jacob in action, we’ll have one of those “aha” moments, when we suddenly see what God is doing in our lives.
The first time we hear of Jacob, he is jostling with his older brother in Rebekah’s womb. Mothers know all about that—the squirming and stretching, all elbows and kneecaps and buttocks and head, wrestling for room in the womb. Then this smooth little rascal comes into the world holding onto his hairy brother’s heel, which prompted his parents to name him Jacob, which means literally, “he grasps the hell,” or more figuratively, he deceives or he supplants.
His birth name reveals his character, for the next two times we hear of him, he is scheming and supplanting, taking his big brother’s place in the world by deceit. Most of your listeners will know the stories, but I wonder how many of them understand what a birthright is and why the blessing of Genesis 27 matters.
The birthright was simply the eldest son’s right to have at least twice as much of the inheritance as his younger brothers, and maybe more. Isaac, for example, got all Abraham’s stuff. But more than that, the birthright gave the one who had it the right to be the ruler of the family clan. He was the teacher, judge, general, police, doctor, and priest of the whole family. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Numero Uno!
The blessing was the powerful final wish of the dying father on the one who had the birthright. The ancient peoples believed that such a blessing had real power, an almost magical ability to make good things happen. It was a virtual guarantee of success and prosperity.
If you had both the birthright and the blessing, you had it made. Your position and your future were solid and secure. Without those twin benefits, you were more or less on your own, out in the cold, doomed to a life of hard struggle. And Jacob wouldn’t stand for that.
So, he decided to steal the birthright from Esau. It wasn’t really all that hard. His brother was a down-to-earth fellow, a live in the moment kind of guy, a “what’s for dinner” man of powerful appetites. When he came in out of the fields after a day of hunting and absolutely famished, his cool-headed, manipulating little brother saw his chance. “I’ll trade you a bowl of chunky vegetable soup for your birthright.” Esau may have been stupid and weak and impulsive. But Jacob was selfish and ruthless, a truly wicked little man, to take advantage of his brother like that.
His mother wasn’t much better, maybe worse, when she took advantage of her own husband’s age to cheat her elder son out Isaac’s final blessing. Jacob had some initial qualms, stemming not from his concern about the morality of his mother’s scheme, but from the fear of getting caught. But then he got right into it. It was his character to deceive and lie and cheat.
His smooth skin covered with the hide of a goat, wearing his brother’s clothes, carrying a tasty dish of barbequed goat made to taste like venison, Jacob went in to his blind, doddering old father. “I am Esau your firstborn.” “Back so soon? How did you get game so quickly?” “The Lord your God gave me success.” “Are you really my son, Esau?” “I am.” And so he stole the blessing—“an abundance of grain and new wine… [and] be lord over your brothers….”
And it was done. Jacob had the birthright and the blessing. By bald-faced deceit Jacob had secured the rest of his life. He had it made—his authority and his prosperity were now guaranteed. His life would be as smooth and easy as he was. I can picture him laying back on his easy chair, a big cigar in one hand, a martini in the other hand, as he sang, “I did it my way.”
The irony of these opening episodes of Jacob’s life is that he would have gotten all those things anyway. All the things he tried to get by deceit, he would have gotten from God. Jacob didn’t need Esau’s birthright or Isaac’s blessing, because he already had God’s promise. Remember? When Jacob and Esau were jostling in Rebekah’s womb, she was so troubled that she asked God, “Why is this happening to me?” God said, “The older will serve the younger.” God had promised Rebekah that Jacob would have the first place, and she had surely repeated that promise to Jacob often as he grew up. He was, after all, her favorite. God will give you first place. He promised.
The problem was that Jacob, and Rebekah, couldn’t see how God could do that. Everyone knew that you had to have the birthright and the blessing to be first. That’s the nature of life, the way society works. So, if God is going to make me first, I’m going to have to take matters into my own hands. I can’t wait for God to do this thing. Surely, he expects me to do something for myself. So rather than trusting that God could do what he had promised, Jacob had to do it his way, even though it meant lying and cheating and deceiving.
Thus, Jacob’s wrestling match with God. Rather than walking hand in hand with his covenant Lord, trusting the Lord to work things out in his own time and way, Jacob took matters into his own hand and did it his way, engaging in hand to hand combat with the Lord of the Universe. And it worked. He got what he wanted—the birthright and the blessing, authority and prosperity, first place and security. A smooth and easy life.
No, not that last thing, not a smooth and easy life. In fact, he got exactly the opposite. Though he got the birthright and the blessing, the very things he thought would make his life smooth and easy, he soon discovered that it doesn’t work that way. He discovered that the human means of success and security are no guarantee of happiness.
As soon as Esau found out about the theft of the blessing, he vowed to murder Jacob as soon as Isaac died. He meant it and he could do it. He could crush his mama’s boy brother with one great hairy fist. So, Jacob had to run and for the next 21 years of his life, he paid the price for his victory. In fact, right up to the end, his life was harder than it had to be. Time and again, he might have sung, “I did it my way, and look what it got me.”
When you wrestle with God, you lose, even when you think you win. As a matter of fact, it was precisely the fact that he did it his way, rather than trusting God, that made his life so difficult. Once he began to wrestle with God, there was a lifetime of wrestling to come, so that, at the end, he said, “My days have been few and difficult (Genesis 47:9).”
Here is the surprising Gospel in the story of this slippery scoundrel. God did not let go of Jacob’s hand, ever. God did not break his promise to save Jacob or make him the source of salvation for the world. In Jesus Christ, all of God’s promises come true for his children, even if they are Jacob. God is faithful even when we are faithless. Indeed, at the very moment of Jacob’s greatest failure, God began a process that would transform Jacob into a prince with God.
Here’s how one scholar put it. “Jacob got the power and status he was seeking, but in so doing he became a marked man in God’s eyes, and as a result he would be forced to undergo great changes in his character. A process of development would be forced upon the unsuspecting Jacob which would compel him to become a conscious, moral, and whole person.” It would be harder than it needed to be, because he insisted on doing it his way and wrestling with God. But God will finish his work.
Apply that to Christians today and it sounds like this. God does not love his children because we are good, but to make us so. In that is our hope. If God could shape such rough material as Jacob into a prince, he can surely finish his work in us. And he will, as Paul said in Philippians 1:6. “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The only issue is, how much will we fight him? We’re free to do that, and he won’t throw us out of the ring. But it only makes life harder, much harder than it needs to be. So, what will it be? Will we wrestle with God in hand to hand combat or walk with God hand in hand in covenantal love and faithfulness?
In this message I’ve alluded to Frank Sinatra’s famous anthem of rugged, self-reliant, almost arrogant individualism, “I Did It My Way.” It makes a powerful modern connection with the way Jacob conducted himself in the text for today. Those with good sound systems and an audience that appreciates the use of AV in a message might want to play it before or during the message.
My frequent negative references to Jacob wrestling with God might irritate some members of your church who are fans of WWE or who are involved in high school and college wrestling. It might be worthwhile to compare and contrast the wrestling that is done for entertainment or for healthy competition with Jacob’s wrestling that aimed to take control of his own destiny.
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