Sunday, July 24, 2011

His grace leads to our transformation . . .

     How great is God's grace? How amazing is it? I suppose we might make the argument that God could have inspired only the Gospels, and you and I would have known of His love of us. Fortunately though, since some of us are a bit hard-headed or a bit slow, He tells of His grace in many different ways.

     This week's story about Jacob might seem a bit strange to our ears. A man serving as a slave for his uncle, two daughters being given away with no account of their thoughts on the matter, a man being duped to sleep with the wrong girl—there is much for us to shake our heads at in consternation. Heck, hasn't all that been a repeated theme on some Soap Operas? But the story, read in isolation, might seem a bit disconnected to the rest of Jacob's story. Recall why we are where we are. Jacob conspired with his mother and tricked his father out of his older brother's blessing. He and his mother have, once again, conspired to deal with his brother and father's anger. Rebekah sent her younger son on a mission to find a bride. Her hope was he would, no doubt, but she also hoped Esau's anger would abate. Esau seems to have been impetuous at times. I mean, really, who gives up their inheritance for a bowl of lentil stew? Maybe a great steak, but lentil stew? And lest we forget, Rebekah was also the mother of Esau. Who knows a child better than a mom? Maybe some time away will help speed the cooling off period.
So, Jacob arrives at Laban's place. He spends some time there about which we hear next to nothing. Was Rachel so beautiful and graceful that he was thunderstruck? Did they strike up some great conversations over the goat's milk? We just don't know. Scripture seems to think that part of the story was unimportant. We do know that whatever happens causes Jacob to be willing to serve 14 years for Rachel. What Scripture emphasizes in this pericope, however, are some valuable lessons and some amazing insights. Clearly, sibling rivalry is nothing new. Last week, we read about the tussles between Jacob and Esau. This week, we hear that Rachel is beautiful and graceful but that Leah has unique eyes. Yes, I know our translation says “lovely eyes,” but the word translated as lovely is unique to Scripture. We're not sure as to its meaning. Her eyes could have been crossed, for all we know. It could also have been the idiomatic way of saying in ancient times “she has a great personality.” Anybody here not know what is meant by the “she has a great personality” line? Those of us asked to wingman on blind dates knew it was the code for “she looks like a water buffalo, but she is really funny. Thanks for doing this.” And ladies, ever describe another lady with a “great personality”? Ever mean it truly as a compliment? So, we are being set up for sibling rivalry among the ladies in this story.

     So, Laban comes to Jacob and asks what he wants. Jacob wants Rachel, you know, the lovely one. A bargain is struck. Seven years labor for the hand of Rachel. For those of us concerned about whether there is true affection at play here, ask yourself this difficult question: “Would you have served seven years for your spouse?” Maybe if we reverted to that system, our divorce rate would decline dramatically, but that is a sermon for another time!

     Seven years pass. Jacob's reward is finally at hand. The party must have been huge. How else could Jacob have been fooled? Gentlemen, ever thought of explaining to your wife using the words “Hey, I thought I was sleeping with you” with the expectation that she would buy it? Ladies, ever buy it as a good excuse? So now the tables are turned. The trickster has been tricked. Some in other churches will no doubt preach this lesson on the divine justice or humor of God. Is there a more appropriate thing to happen to Jacob? If nothing else, he should have some empathy for what he has done to his brother and father his whole life. But, while issues of justice and humor are certainly present, I wonder whether they very important in our lesson.

     So Jacob is furious. Laban shrugs off his anger with a “in our way of doing things, a first born daughter always gets married first.” Should Laban have mentioned that in the beginning of the seven years? Sure. And he knows it. But he tells Jacob to finish the honeymoon with Leah, and he can have Rachel too, as long as Laban gets another seven years labor to boot. By the way, for those of us who have read the torah, this marrying of sisters to the same man will be prohibited. But Jacob agrees to the terms. Though he presumably does not want to, he fulfills his responsibilities to Leah. Then, he claims his prize and his next set of tasks.

     I asked about God's grace at the very beginning. You may wonder where His grace is. This family is messed up! Sister rivalry, dishonest father-in-law, dishonest hero, an unloved bride. But this is the royal family. They should be better than this, right? I mean, Abraham never lied to anyone, right? Sarah never took matters into her own hands to fulfill God's covenant in her time, right? Isaac never failed his sons, right? Rebekah never favored one son over another, right? By the way, speaking of the covenant, you know the one where God promised to make Abraham's descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky or the sands on the beach. The same one He made with Jacob last week where he promised that his descendants would be like dust on the earth. How's that working out so far? Jacob has just served seven years and has the wrong wife to show for it. Isaac and Rebekah only had two sons, and they may kill each other before it's over with. And nobody seems willing not to try and serve their own interests. All are like me in the sense that they know what God wants, how to do what He wants, and that He needs my help. Each seems concerned with acting on their impulses or emotions rather than trusting the Lord to keep His covenant. Given their “help” it is amazing that His story ever gets a chance to unfold. Yet despite all these connivings and deceits, despite all the selfishness and self-aggrandizement, God still manages to see thing through.

     So complete is His power that all their selfishness cannot thwart Him. So amazingly is His control that their deceits will know confuse or confound Him. And such is His love and grace to them and to us that He will work through their messes, even when the ultimate cost for their sinfulness will be His own punishment to bear. They may give up on Him after a time, but He never gives up on them. Though the royal family seems small when this passage ends, it is just a few passages away from twelve sons and one daughter (though that path is rocky and full of its own rivalry, rape, and selfish brats). Though Jacob does not deserve the honor of being in covenant with God, let alone a great-great-great-great grandfather of Jesus, his story is preserved for edification and for our wonder.

     All of us sitting here probably recognize ourselves in these stories. Perhaps we are the schemers, perhaps we are the victims of schemers, maybe our mothers and fathers played favorites, maybe we are the parents or grandparents who favored our children or grandchildren, maybe we have been described as “having a great personality,” maybe we have spoken of others in those terms knowing and relishing in the hurt it would cause. Chances are, we see ourselves or our circumstances in these stories of the Old Testament. And that is a good thing, an amazing thing! No matter how far down the path of selfishness and sinfulness we find ourselves, we can always be reminded by these stories of His power and His grace to redeem incredibly bad circumstances or choices.

     As we have watched the past few weeks, Jacob has undergone an amazing transformation. The selfish, greedy, conniving sob who thinks nothing of fooling his father or stealing from his brother has become a patriarch of our faith. The same man who stole birthrights, who played favorites with his mother, and who eventually took even an inheritance destined for another will become a man who serves for 14 years to get a wife, who will lose his hothead ways and amazingly offer peace to those who rape his daughter, who will wrestle with God for His blessing, and who will return to his brother (though not without some of the old Jacob showing through) to try and reconcile with Esau. God offers us that same transformative grace to become His beloved son or His beloved daughter, children birthed by the Holy Spirit in His image through the amazing work of His beloved Son.

     You and I can even read these stories and remind ourselves of the need for patience when dealing with God. If He can close and open the wombs of women whether they are young or very old to keep His promises, if He can overcome the schemes of evil choices or people, if He can raise His Son from the dead after three days, there is nothing, no single thing that He cannot do for us. Best of all, that covenant that He made with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebekah, with Jacob and Rachel and Rebekah and Zilpah and Bilhah, He offers to each one of us, to our offspring, and to all those whom we meet in our daily lives and work. Amazing grace, indeed!


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