A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (26/07/20): God’s Promises Are Fulfilled Despite What We Do

God’s Promises Are Fulfilled Despite What We Do 
Genesis 29:15-30 

Jacob has been confronting the question that all of us from time to time must face. What does the future hold? Where is his life going? Jacob at one level knows better than most some of the answer to that question. He is the recipient, the carrier, of a promise of God. God has promised him that hill will have many offspring. His children will be numerous. They will be so numerous in fact that they will become a nation. And this is only his part of a much larger promise which God has made to his family and to the whole human race. Jacob is one link in a chain that leads from Abraham to Jesus. One moment in the trajectory of the story of God’s gracious dealing with the human race. The promise to Jacob is one in a long sequence which make up God’s saving action. The story begins with the promise to Abraham that he will become many nations and that his descendants will be a blessing to the whole world. And it leads eventually to the promise made through Jesus Christ that anyone who would follow him should share in his life, life in all its abundance. 

But right now that story seems stalled. There is an obstacle in the path of all these thing coming to fruition. There is no prospect of Jacob having any children. He doesn’t even have a wife. And what is more just now he is the world’s least eligible bachelor. He has run away from home. He has run away just before the consequences of his actions caught up with him. He has deceived his father and betrayed his twin brother. He tricked Esau out of his inheritance. And then he duped his father into giving him the blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother. Not unnaturally Jacob is not welcome at home. So he is on the run. He is a penniless refugee. He is not a victim, since that situation is of his own making. But he is definitely not a very appealing prospect. He is not good husband material!
Jacob though is the sort of person who always treats a problem as an opportunity. Every situation he finds himself in is an opportunity for him to get ahead. Even before he was born he struggled to gain the advantage over his twin. He was born grasping his brother’s heal. And from the moment he was born he has always used his cleverness, his ingenuity, and indeed his outright deceptiveness to take hold his own future. He has always striven to make his own future. He has tried to shape that future to his own liking. The name he was given means “he grasps” because he was holding his brother’s heal. But his name’s true significance became clear as time went on, it means “usurper.” Jacob is the one who grasps the position, the place in life, that does not belong to him. And without a wife, at this point he presumes to takes God’s place. Rather than accept the promise that God has made to him, and trust that God will be true to that promise, Jacob sets about making it come true for himself. He will make the fulfillment of that promise in his own time, at his own convenience and according to his own preferences. 

So looking for a wife Jacob has arrived at his uncle Laban’s house. Laban is his mother’s brother. And Jacob, as soon as he arrived, has seen what he wants. He wants Rachel. Jacob wants he beautiful and graceful daughter of a wealthy man. She fits Jacob’s plan for his future perfectly. He can sort out fulfilling God’s promise and have what he wants all at the same time. Jacob is utterly smitten with Rachel. And as so often happens, when people are in love, or in what passes for love, or in what they imagine is love but is in fact lust and self-interest, as so often happens Jacob’s usual good sense and wiliness leaves him. He is so consumed with his desire for Rachel that his guard is down. 
Uncle Laban is a shrewd man. No one gets to where he is today without a measure cunning and guile and an eye for a good deal when he sees one. Perhaps he recalls the time when Abraham’s servant arrived looking for a bride for Isaac. They arrived with camels laden with treasure and took away his sister Rebekah to become Isaac’s wife and eventually Jacob’s mother. But Jacob is a different prospect altogether. He has no treasure. He has nothing at all. He doesn’t even have a good reputation! He is a fugitive and rather at Laban’s mercy. Though Laban seems to be all friendliness to begin with. He welcomes Jacob’s suggestion that he and Rachel should become man and wife. “Better,” he says “that I should give her to you than that I should give her to any other man.” And the crafty dealer that he is, seeing that Jacob is too taken with Rachel to be cautious, Laban lets Jacob name his own terms. Jacob offers to work for Laban for seven years for the hand of Rachel in marriage. Jacob is prepared to pay a very high price to get what he wants, and he wants Rachel. You know just how good a deal Laban is getting when he snaps it up right away, no bargaining, no haggling, done! Laban gets to keep Rachel and all the work she might do, for seven more years. But on top of that he gets Jacob’s labour as well, bargain! 

As the seven years pass Jacob reckons he has got a good deal. Those seven years pass as if they were a day. His anticipation of the reward at the end, Rachel as his wife, carried him through them all with hardly a care. Life is sweet. The future he had planned and shaped for himself is all coming about. He has taken God’s promise and he is making it come true. The wedding feast arrives. It is a great party. In the evening Jacob rolls into bed, probably having had slightly more to drink than was wise. But he is ready for the fulfilment of seven years of longing. 
When Laban and Jacob had first met, Laban had declared: “Surely you are my bone and my flesh” He now sets about and proves that they are indeed cut from the same cloth. There is a twist in this story. Laban has two daughters. Rachel is the second. She has an older sister Leah. Older, less pretty, less graceful, Leah’s eyes, it was said, were lovely. That sounds like faint praise compared to Rachel. But it is not even that. It is a slur which the  ancient rabbis and modern translators alike are ashamed to expose. What it really says there is: “Leah’s eyes were weak.” Was she short sighted, were her looks and her grace spoiled by a squint? Or did she simply lack the sparkle that was present in her sister’s eyes that made her so attractive? 
The trickster is tricked. Laban proves himself every bit as crafty and deceitful as his nephew. Jacob has met his match. In the dark and in the alcoholic haze Leah is inserted into Jacob’s bed rather than Rachel. And Jacob doesn’t spot the difference. And their marriage is consummated! In the morning there are the recriminations. “What is this you have done to me?” cries Jacob dismayed. Laban keeps a straight face while laughing inside. “This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the first born.” Oh the irony! Jacob the younger, who had tricked the firstborn out of his inheritance, now tricked into marrying the firstborn instead of the younger! But there is still a deal to be made, “Tell you what,” says Laban with a smirk, “we will give you the other in return for serving me another seven years.” When the honeymoon with Leah was over he could have his Rachel. But now his prize tasted like dust and ashes. The future he was designing for himself in ruins. The first seven years had past in a moment, Every moment of the second seven years dragged like an eternity. Seven years paying off a debt for something he didn’t want. What more burdensome servitude could there be. And in those circumstance, lovely as she was, Rachel can hardly have been much consolation, with her sister Leah there as a constant reminder of the terrible mess that Jacob has made of his life.

This story reminds me of nothing more than a soap opera And perhaps the comparison is a genuine one. The drama in the story is perhaps slightly exaggerated, maybe it is heightened for effect. But on the other hand, like a soap opera, it is true enough to life to be believable. This is exactly the kind of mess people can get themselves into when they are trying to take hold of life and shape a future for themselves. Everyone’s self interest runs up against everyone else’s. Problem and opportunity, power and weakness are thrown into the mix. And the awful tangle that is human life and human society is what comes out of the other end. But where is God in this? As Bible readings go, the tale of how Jacob ended up married to two women, is remarkable because God is not mentioned once. God is not even hinted at. Everyone is acting pretty much as we all might. Using the freedom we have to do what we think is best in the circumstances we find ourselves in. Some of us act with the best intentions. Some act with much more selfish and self-interested intentions. But in fact most of us are mixed up and not sure. And all of it is done without any reference to God, and without any reference to what God might intend for us in the long term. Jacob, Laban, and we just get on with living. But God works his purpose out. God is there unseen bringing about the future which God wants. This sorry tale of a trickster who gets tricked, this sorry tale is the beginning of the story of the foundation of God’s chosen people, Israel. The people who carry on the promise of blessing for all that was made to Abraham, the story of God’s seeking to love and save the human race that continues through Jesus Christ to reach us here and now, begins here. It is a story of God seeking our best and of God’s will being done despite our best efforts to get in the way of it. Even at our best God accomplishes his good will despite what we do, rather than because of it. Facing what the future holds  we can do so with hope and confidence and even joy because whilst like Jacob we cannot ever shape that future quite the way we want, we like him are carriers of God’s promise: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God. God can even use our deceit, our ambition, even our lust to bring about his good purpose,  as he did with Jacob and Laban and Rachel and Leah. He used the betrayal of a friend and an agonising death to bring us to him. Which is what he did with Judas and with Jesus. He continues to work even through our failure and short comings to bring about his reign of love. 

There is a next episode in the soap opera Leah, the unloved wife, cries out to God. And God, we know, has a habit of lifting up the lowly and downtrodden. God hears her cry and gives her sons.  Her sons are Reuben and Simeon and Levi and Judah. They are the founders of great tribes. In our forgetfulness we still commit the same injustice against Leah as Jacob did. One of the prayers in our service book, in the interests of inclusiveness, now names not only the patriarchs, but also their wives. So we pray to: “The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel.” We still prefer the pretty one! Yet it is Leah’s son, Judah, who is the bearer of God’s ongoing promise. It is from him that are descended the kings David and Solomon, and his line continues down to the messiah: Jesus Christ. But the truth is, despite what anyone does, despite how forgetful we can be God’s will is still done. No human scheme or device,  no deceitfulness or trickery,  can do more than delay the future God is forming. The future will be shaped according to God’s promise to work only good for those who love him. 

God’s Promises Are Fulfilled Despite What We Do by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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