Sunday, September 24, 2017

Finding God in Hard Places

When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die.”

Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.

Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” But the words of her elder son Esau were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; flee at once to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury turns away— until your brother’s anger against you turns away, and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send, and bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. 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.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  Gen. 27:1-4, 15-23, 41-45; 28:10-17 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God--Creator, Redeemer, and Renewer. Amen.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve begun to hear the story. The story of how our relationship--how all of humanity’s relationship with the living God is a story of blessing upon blessing. We first read about the blessings of creation and our special responsibility to care for it. We then saw how God blessed Abraham through a difficult time--saw the obedience of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his own son, who trusted that God was big enough to see God’s promise through to fulfillment and how, in the end, God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  How just, at the right time, God provided the sacrifice.

So, what happens when story goes awry? How does all of this work when the blessing is stolen? When God gives God’s blessing to someone we perceive as completely unworthy and undeserving?

As our story opens today, Isaac is now an old man. He and Rebekah, his wife, have been extraordinarily blessed by God with large herds, a number of servants, and much wealth. They are the parents of twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau, the oldest, will be entitled to both the birthright and the blessing under their cultural norms. This means that Esau can expect to be quite wealthy upon the death of Isaac--that he can expect to receive two thirds of all of his father’s estate.

But, the birthright doesn’t only come with wealth. It also comes with power. Esau will be the leader of his family. His brother, Jacob, and all of Jacob’s family will be expected to respect and honor his wishes, as the oldest son and family patriarch.

Then, there is the blessing. This is more personal for Esau. It is the blessing given by God, first to Abraham, Esau’s grandfather. Then to his father Isaac. The blessing--the promise--that God would make a great nation out of Abraham and his descendants and that God would bless them to be a blessing to others.

With both the family birthright and the promised blessing of God, there is a great future ahead for Esau.

And, then, it all falls apart.

It begins with family dysfunction. We get a premonition of this dysfunction at the very beginning of their story, when Esau and Jacob are still in Rebekah’s womb. She experiences a difficult pregnancy. So she turns to God who tells her that the two sons she is carrying will become two nations. That the younger of the two will be the strongest and that the older will be his servant.

Then, in earlier chapters, we also read about how different Esau and Jacob were--physically and temperamentally. Esau was ruddy and handsome, an outdoorsman, a “man’s man.” And that he was Isaac’s favorite.

Then there’s Jacob. He was more delicate. He preferred to stay indoors, particularly in the kitchen. A “mama’s boy.” Yet, smarter than Esau, a schemer. And that Jacob was Rebekah’s favorite.

This family dysfunction plays out one day in the kitchen, where Jacob has just finished cooking a full pot of lentil stew. Esau enters, famished after a full day of hunting. Tricked by Jacob, Esau gives up his birthright--the two thirds of his father’s wealth--in exchange for a bowl of lentil soup.

We see this same dysfunction in today’s lesson. This time, both Jacob and Rebekah are engaged in trickery. In scheming to deprive Esau, who has already lost his birthright. To deprive Esau out of the blessing, too. That more personal promise he is to inherit from Isaac--that promise from God for his future and for his family’s future. 

Rebekah and Jacob are successful in their subterfuge. With Isaac’s failing eyesight and the deception of his wife and son, we read in our text that Isaac mistakenly gives the blessing to Jacob. That, in a similar twist and in exchange for a bowl of savory food, of delicacies, of “rich food,” Isaac gives the blessing to Jacob. A blessing of wealth and power and, eventually, the ancestral blessing of God’s promise. A blessing that can’t be taken back.

Esau is outraged. He is beside himself with anger and frustration. “Bless me, me, too, Father!” he cries out bitterly to Isaac. “Haven’t you reserved a blessing for me?” He says, in tears, to his father. And, then, Esau plots to kill Jacob. To wait until their father has died and the days of mourning have passed. And, then, to kill Jacob. His brother.

Rebekah gets wind of Esau’s plan. She convinces Jacob to leave. To run away. To escape the wrath of his brother. To flee to the home of his uncle, Laban--Rebekah’s brother. Back to the ancestral land of Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather. 

Family dysfunction. Playing favorites. The ongoing patterns of deception that continue on and on. The evasion. The covering up. The running away. These all become patterns of life. And Jacob, in particular, is complicit for much of what has happened. For much of the family dysfunction.

Yet, Jacob doesn’t live happily ever after, as tricksters rarely do. In the story, Jacob finds himself on the run, alone, in the wilderness. Somewhere between the home he has left behind and that of his uncle. 

Our story says he came to “a certain place.” The original Hebrew reads that Jacob came to “the place.” There’s a definite article here. To the place.  As though the reader will know exactly where this is. Early Jewish writings tell us that this is Moriah. This place--Mount Moriah--has special significance. It’s where the near sacrifice of Isaac happened. It’s also the place where Solomon would eventually build the temple. The temple on the highest place in Jerusalem.

Jacob does not know this. All he knows is that he is tired. He is tired of running and he is all alone. Without family or friends. In a desolate place. All by himself.  With a stone for a pillow. 

And, then, the dream begins. It is a wild dream. A wild vision of a stairway stretching from earth to heaven, with angels--messengers of God--moving first up the stairway and then back down. Over and over. Up and down. From earth to heaven and back down again.

Early Jewish writings compare this stairway to those attached to temple towers in the ancient Near East. These stairways were considered microcosms of the world--that the top of the tower represented heaven, the dwelling place of the gods. And that priests would traverse the stairway between heaven and earth and provide communication from the gods to the people. These writings challenge this notion. They argue that this dream is evidence that God speaks God’s own words--words of promise. And that, in this dream, God is personally present with Jacob.

Whatever its interpretation, Jacob wakes up. He realizes that this place is the place--a holy place. A place of God. He takes the stone he has been using for a pillow, anoints it with oil and sets it upright to mark this place. Then, Jacob names this place Beth-el, meaning “house of God.” It is here, in this place of wilderness, in the midst of life and of suffering, in this hard place, that God has been present for Jacob.  Eventually Israel would build walls around this place and invite people to it as a place of sanctuary, as a holy place. That they will mistakenly believe that it is only in this place where God is to be found.

We often make that same mistake. Believing that God is only to be found here, inside these walls. What this story teaches us that, in fact, God is found out there. In the wilderness, in the midst of life and of suffering, in the hard places. In the messiness of our lives. It is in the hidden and most obscure, in the darkest places of our lives and of our world that God is most present. At work. Reconciling.

Because that, ultimately, is how the story of Jacob and Esau will end. With reconciliation. Jacob comes back. Just like we come back. To God, who has always been present with us and who refuses to let our dysfunctional pasts determine our futures. Where those patterns are altered through God’s grace. 

Ultimately, it is Jesus, who becomes the embodiment of this presence of God in the midst of human sin and dysfunction.  It is Jesus who is like the stairway in Jacob’s dream. Jesus, who binds together earth and heaven. Jesus, through whom we find God in the midst of the hard places. We find God just like Jacob did. Present, even when we don’t realize it. 

This is the story of Jacob. It is our story. Mostly, though, it is the story of God. How, despite the obstacles we throw in the way, despite the tragedy or our sinfulness, despite the wilderness of our lives and our world, God sees a much bigger picture than we can. God sees where the blessings lie hidden. And God uncovers them to God’s glory.  And brings us back. Home. To the house of God.

With Jacob, we, too, can proclaim, “How awesome is this place!” And, mostly, “how awesome is our God!” Amen.

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