Genesis 25: 19-34 (Briarwood, July 2012, Jacob/Esau ‘I’).
The two parts juxtapose the inscrutable power of God with the self-serving cleverness or human desire. We will see that even in the latter, God’s purposes are at work.
Walter Bruggemann, Intepretation: Genesis, 212.
On September 18th we heard news that a solider in the British military had given birth to a baby. It made the news not because this soldier was one of the few Fujians serving in that army. It made news not because of the way this solider and her new baby were whisked to a hospital and to safety with speed. It made the news because it was the first known instance of an active British solider giving birth in a combat zone.
The camp where this soldier gave birth was Camp Bastion. This is in southern Afganistan. The week before the birth the camp was attacked by the Taliban. Two U.S. Marines were killed in the attack and six fighter jets were destroyed. The Camp itself was not a place of 100% safety. And it was surrounded by immediate conflict, in a country that was experiencing the same. This story made the news because a baby, an innocent, beautiful, God-made, baby was born into the Universe, not in a quiet hospital in Putney, but in place within hearing and striking distance of bullets, missiles and bombs. This baby didn’t choose where it was born. But this baby was born into conflict. It was born into restlessness. And we’d do well to pray for mother and child.
Jacob is a baby who is born into restlessness. Into conflict. He doesn’t choose. But in this story from Genesis, that fact is not hidden, it’s made abundantly clear. Remember where we are: Isaac, the son of the great Abraham and Sarah, is married to the love of his life Rebbekah. They are full of faith, and are yet waiting for God’s promise of a child to come true. They both pray. And Rebbekah gets back from the Lord the strangest of answers: it is a prophecy of conflict. 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.” Now, we have also have to note, as strange as this is, that God doesn’t apologize for such a word. It is stated quite as a matter of fact. There will be conflict. Restlessness. Get ready. And there is, from the beginning. When the twins are born, the first one, the oldest, Esau, comes first; but gripping his heel – not letting him get out ahead on his own, but attaching himself and grabbing for what he wants – is Jacob.
And this grabbing for what he wants goes on. We meet Esau, grown, the hunter. But on a day unable to find food. He comes into his brother, Jacob, the shepherd. There is a red stew on the simmer. Esau wants it. Now. Right away. Not able to look beyond the present, Esau in his worldliness, will do anything to satisfy his immediate craving. Jacob sees this, and like any good brother in a story of sibling conflict, exploits it. Will not give Esau any food – the red stuff – until Esau promises Jacob his birthright. The honour, accolades, prestige and land of the first born now in the hands of the youngest. And in the Hebrew, Esau, is disappointed with the stew. It is not a meaty ‘red stuff’ he thought it was, it is only lentils.
So Jacob deceives his brother, albeit a rash brother open to deception, and lives by a mantra of “self-serving cleverness”.
And all this, from the one, who much later in the story, will be called Israel, and out of whose family will come the very people of God. And the Messiah.
And we might have to just ask ourselves what in the world a story that includes sibling rivalry, family conflict, restlessness, deception, blackmail, and parental favoritism is doing in the Bible. That has nothing to do with our lives! And anyways, I thought God was nice.
And so we learn something about our lives.
And we learn something about God.
We learn that we live in a world that is broken by conflict, a brokenness that for a long, long time, has made its way into the very manner in which we live. That has made its way into our homes, around our dinner tables and into our bedrooms. Jacob’s isn’t the first family to almost fall apart because of less than satisfactory behaviour, and it won’t be the last. And as we stare a story like this one in the face, and push it aside as an old tale the has nothing to bear on our present, it stares right back at us, and asks us to look deeply into our own lives. Where we have been agents of conflict. Where we have not been good news to each other. Where we, me included just ask my family, or your Session!, where we have not stood against this restlessness but gone along with it.
As was said at the organ concert last week, I recently spoke to a grade school teacher who had done a vocabulary test with her class. They were stumped on one word. Sinister. After a long pause, she asked again if anyone knew that the word meant. Finally, one of the kids chimed in, Isn’t that the one who stands at the front of the church? And indeed, I am sure there are times when I’m both. And I’m am sure there are times too, when we have all chosen, the way of conflict over love and peace.
Last year in Montreal the Chinese Alliance congregations celebrated 50 years of ministry together. I say congregations, because, they had, intentionally since the beginning of their first church downtown, they had intentionally tried to plant or development a new, sister church, every few years, in different parts of the city. The pastor, who had been there many years, came to a conference at PC, and spoke about this. He explained how they had felt that call to plant churches and reach out, and how along the way they had experienced many, many joys and many challenges. How there had been conflict and agreement in the midst of many ideas, visions and personalities. And I thought it was absolutely profound when he described how, when it was coming up to the 50th anniversary of all these churches, and the parent church downtown, how when the leaders gathered to plan how to celebrate 50 good years of all this work; I thought it was absolutely profound that they decided, not to hold a service where all the people and ministers who had done faithful work were paraded up front, or asked to present different things; they didn’t rent the Ritz hotel for a 7-course meal together. Instead after 50 years of growing Christ’s church in the city, the leaders decided, that in that time, when decisions and directions where being discussed, on many levels, they knew there had been conflict, they knew also that not everyone had always agreed, and they knew that there had been hard times where forgiveness was needed; and so they decided for the 50th as the big event, to hold a service of repentance, together, and confession, and forgiveness.
Wow. Try writing the invitations for a service like that! Come, repent together, pray, forgive.
What a message of the reconciling love of Jesus Christ and his work on the cross, in a world of conflict.
But in this story we also learn something about God.
And that is this: that in Jesus Christ, God is the God whose purposes are at work in all things, through all things.
Even through broken families. Even through broken people. The God made known to us in a broken saviour. Who died on the cross that we might live in forgiveness and in hope of eternal life. Hope that the sin we see in ourselves and in our world does not actually have the most power. But that in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. We are called sons and daughters of God. Says Paul, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is this God. Who can and does and chooses to work in this world through broken systems and through broken people that Jacob comes to encounter, and that we as the church, God’s people, encounter every day and live for.
William Willimon tells the story of the time he was chaplain at a University in the States. As chaplain he sometimes got strange calls and was asked to make unusual visits. One night he got a call from a Fraternity on the campus, who had been suspended by the Academic Dean for behaviour and conduct at a party on campus. Part of their suspension was to sit through 6 educational sessions. And so they called the chaplain to give one. Willimon asked them if there was any topic in particular they would like him to address. They said, no not really.
So he arrives at the Fraternity one Friday at 9 p.m., to talk to them about manhood and charactor and the Greek philosophers who argue about this, rings the doorbell, and a little boy, about 8 years old opens the door, says, What do you want? Willimon can’t believe it. Here he is coming to the Fraternity to talk about character and good behaviour they have an 8-year-old hanging out there in the middle of the night. So he goes in, sits down in the living room with them, the boy goes over and curls up on one of the chairs. Willimon talks to them all for while, is very glad when the night is over, hopes they’ll feel no compulsion whatsoever to ever need to ask him back. When they stand up, the president of the Fraternity goes over the little boy, and says, James, time to go to bed. Go brush your teeth and I’ll come tuck you in. Willimon can’t believe this.
The President, a young man maybe 20, sees him out the front door, stands out on the step, and lights his cigarette. Willimon goes over the top. He says, tell me young man, do want tell me what in the world is going in this place. You’re all 20 something year olds suspended by the Dean, and you’ve got hanging out with you in the place late at night a little 8-year-old boy. Where do you guys get off on this? The 20-year-old President, looked over between puffs, and said to Willimon, oh the boy?, that’s James. We’re part of the big brothers club. Met him through that. His mother is a crack addict and sometimes things get out of hand at home. We told him, James, if you ever just need to get away, you can call us, and you can come over here anytime.
And so sometimes he does. He might be here for a few hours, or for a night; if it’s really bad he’ll stay part of the week. We feed him supper. Give him breakfast. I’m in charge of his laundry; do it with mine. I pack his lunch in the morning and see him off to school, when he’s here. Willimon, didn’t know what to say. He was quiet, I take back what I just said, wow, that’s amazing.
The young man took one long drag on his cigarette, pointed over at Willimon, and said, no, it’s not; what’s amazing, is that God Almighty, would do something this good through somebody like me. That’s what’s amazing.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.