SCRIPTURE – Genesis 25:19-34 – This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.) Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
Wake Up with Jacob sermon series
Sermon #1 – Getting Off on the Wrong Foot
June 24, 2012
You probably know the name Israel as a geographic place in the Middle East. You may also know the name Israel as a description of a certain group of people, the Israelites, God’s chosen ones. But you may not know that before Israel was a country or a group of people, Israel was a man. Israel was the father of the 12 children who would become the forefathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. One of his sons, Joseph, had a coat so spectacular that they made a play about it. Israel, who was a grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac, inherited God’s blessing and became the father of the great nation that would bear his name.
But before he was the forefather of faith, before he was Israel, he had another name. He was Jacob. The story of Jacob is not the kind of story you’d expect for such a hero of faith. From the moment of his birth, Jacob led a less-than-honorable life, using lying, cunning and deceit to get his way, grabbing and snatching, swindling his way to the top, only looking out for himself and putting God in the backseat. And yet, this is the person God chose to carry on the blessing.
During the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the life of Jacob before he became Israel. What we’ll pay special attention to during this time is how God can work through such a less-than-perfect person to carry on God’s promise. I pray that as we “Wake Up with Jacob” that we’ll also be awakened to the many ways God is at work around us and through us.
To understand the story of Jacob, we have to go back a few generations. In Genesis 1-11, we are told the story of God as creator and God’s relationship to the creation, especially humans. In short, it doesn’t go well. From Adam and Eve to Noah’s generation to the Tower of Babel, humans are constantly disobeying and rebelling against God. So, starting in chapter 12, a shift is made from the general to the particular. God gets specific and gives Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, a promise that he would be made into a great nation and he would be a blessing to all peoples on the earth. After a few false starts and close calls, that promise was eventually passed onto Isaac, his first-born son with Sarah, with the idea that the promise would then be passed onto Isaac’s son, and so on, until it was ultimately fulfilled.
That’s where we pick up today’s story. Like the story of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah’s journey starts with barrenness. But instead of a long, drawn-out narrative, we are simply told that Isaac prays to God and Rebekah become pregnant. That sounds pretty easy, but if you read the story carefully you realize there was twenty years in between Isaac’s prayer and the birth of their first children. Twenty years is a long time to wait for a prayer to be answered, but the point is it was answered.
Boy, was it answered! Be careful what you ask for, right? “Lord, please give us a son…wait, I only asked for one!” In my last church, at one point we had seven sets of twins under the age of 18. Leigh and I agreed not to drink from the church water fountain. God blessed those parents and God bless those parents! But I’ll bet that none of those twins’ parents experienced what Rebekah experienced during her pregnancy.
Two of my greatest memories of Leigh’s pregnancies with Sydney and Molly are the first times I felt each of them move. I remember placing my hand on Leigh’s belly and feeling that little “thump” against my hand. It made it all real to me, and it’s the moment I truly fell in love with my girls. Rebekah’s memories of those moments aren’t quite as pleasant. Now, I would assume that two babies in a womb would make twice as much movement as one, but what Rebekah was feeling wasn’t gentle thumps, it was beatdowns and body slams! These two boys, destined to be in conflict with each other once they were born, were getting a head start on their sibling rivalry. So Rebekah, probably feeling a bit like a punching bag, asks the Lord what’s going on and receives this cryptic oracle about her soon-to-be born sons. She learns that whoever comes out second will actually come in first, because, as God says, “The older will serve the younger.”
When the boys are born, the first one who comes out is hairy and red. Closely following Esau was his brother, who was so eager to be first that he actually grabbed onto the heel of his older brother. The name “Jacob” means “he grabs the heel,” or more figuratively, “he supplants” or “he deceives.” Right from the start, the two boys couldn’t have been more different. Now that I have two children, I can relate to this. Our girls have the same parents, the same genes, are brought up in the same household, were read the same books, but Leigh and I are amazed at how different they are. Sydney is the cautious one, Molly is more of the risk-taker. Sydney is more studious and goal-oriented, Molly is more of a free spirit. It’s a fascinating study in human nature to see how children grow up differently.
Jacob and Esau were no different. Esau was a hunter, a gatherer, a man’s man. Jacob was the more quiet, stay-at-home type who liked to cook. If Esau lived today he would wear flannel, chew tobacco, and drive a big souped-up pickup truck to his cabin in the woods. Jacob would be more comfortable in a suit and tie at the office, driving his Lexus downtown to take in a play or go to a swanky restaurant. Esau, the rugged one, was more favored by his father Isaac, while Rebekah favored Jacob, maybe because she remembered God’s oracle and wanted to side with a winner.
Because of their differences and parental favorings, Jacob and Esau simply didn’t get along. That plays itself out in the story about the birthright. Now, in our culture today it may be hard for us to understand the importance of birthright, but in ancient times the birthright meant everything. Along with the first-fruits of the soil and the firstborn of a flock, the first male son was considered a sacred possession of God and was bequeathed the family birthright. It represented the extra rights that would normally go to the eldest son, including leadership in the family and a double share of the inheritance. Having the birthright was the meal ticket to continued success and authority, and Esau had it, even if by only a few seconds.
Until we get to this strange recounting of how Esau lost his birthright. He comes in from the field, famished, and sees his little brother preparing a pot of red stew. It must have smelled like one of my wife’s dinners, because Esau begs for a bowl. Jacob, the deceiver, sees an opening, and offers a bargain: a bowl of stew for the birthright. Now, most people in their right mind would scoff at such an offer, but Esau was focused only on immediate gratification. He only cared about what could serve him here and now, trading what was enduring for what was simply transitory. And through this exchange, Jacob not only inherits the birthright, but also God’s blessing, passed down from Abraham to Isaac, and now to Jacob. Through Jacob’s sly conniving, the older now serves the younger and God’s prophecy is fulfilled.
Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? Why not let the social system play itself out, why not let the older son truly inherit what was his right to inherit? Obviously, neither of these two men seems worthy of God’s blessing. Esau may be impetuous, but Jacob is no saint. But why Jacob?
It could be that God wanted to reiterate a statement he had already made with Cain and his brother Abel, and Isaac and his brother Ishmael. In both those stories, the younger brother is more favored by God. God is making a statement that the world’s rules don’t apply to God’s kingdom. Just because the world says someone is better, more privileged, more worthy of notoriety, doesn’t mean that God has to comply. Jacob’s life was a scandal, and God’s work in this world is scandalous, it goes against what the world says is the right way. God’s birth-order inversions, echoed in Jesus’ statements about the last being first, affirm that believers are not fated to the way the world is presently organized. To those who are disadvantaged or marginalized, that’s the essence of the good news for them. As Christians who have been greatly blessed and live privileged lives, it’s our job to make sure that God’s kingdom takes precedence over worldly conventions in the way we live out our faith.
Another reason God chose Jacob is that Jacob may have had what God was looking for in a promise-bearer. He was survivor. He had a holy stubbornness about him. He had what it took to make a way in life, even if the means were less than holy. Esau treated what was valuable as something worthless. As Haddon Robinson said, Esau sacrificed the permanent on the altar of the immediate. That’s easy to do. It’s so tempting to seek instant gratification instead of wait patiently for a greater blessing. How often do we exchange the spiritual for the material? How often do we trade in our time with God for something more immediately entertaining? It’s so tempting to do these days.
Those could be reasons that God chose Jacob, but don’t they sound like rationalizations? No matter how much you dress him and spray him with perfume, Jacob still stinks. Despite his few endearing qualities, so much about him is despicable. In fact, all the characters in Genesis are less than perfect. They cheat, steal, deceive, plot, murder, and lie. And yet God has chosen them. How will God work through such a person as Jacob? How can God take this wheeler-dealer and make him someone by which all the families of the earth will be blessed? It’s a journey of transformation in which God starts with Jacob right where he is – dishing out soup as he cheats his brother out of his birthright. Can God work with this person? We’ll have to see.
For now, we can take hope from the fact that God elected Jacob to be a blessing, and used Jacob to bring about God’s promises. And if we are willing, God will use us to bring about those blessings. Do you have a less-than-perfect relationship with a brother or sister or family member? God can use you. Have you lied or cheated to get ahead in life? God can use you. Have you taken advantage of someone else to get what you want? God can use you. God will work through whomever God wants to work through, even if we don’t give God a lot to work with. You may feel at times like you’re not worthy, that you don’t have the right gifts or the proper amount of faith to be used by God. But if God can use a stuttering shepherd like Moses, if God can use a swindling trickster like Jacob, then God can certainly use flawed people like you and me to bring about God’s kingdom here on this earth. Isn’t it ironic that Jacob, who is already so good at using people, will end up being used by God. We all have a Jacob in our life, someone we look at through squinty eyes, someone we don’t trust as far as we can throw them, someone we make an effort to steer clear of. Maybe we’re that person for someone else! And yet…and yet…this story is a reminder that we all deserve God’s grace because we are ALL God’s works in progress. God isn’t done with us yet. Thank God!