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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

From I Jacob to We Israel - 08/02/2020

“Is he not rightly named Jacob?” (Gen 27:36) Esau mused when he realized that Isaac had given Jacob the blessing. The name Jacob means he supplants or usurps, he takes by the heel, he overreaches. He’s done it twice, Esau rages, first the birthright for a cup of salty red soup and now the blessing, although Esau certainly shared some accountability, at least in the first instance. Still, it doesn’t excuse Jacob’s tendency to take what is not his through trickery and crafty ways. These days we might call him a con, a gaslighter, maybe privileged or entitled.

You may wonder why Esau was so mad … it’s just words, after all. But it’s not really. It’s as binding as a legal contract might be for us today and here’s what it meant for Jacob to get the blessing Esau felt crumble beneath his feet:

“Isaac (said to) Esau, ‘I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son? …See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Gen 27:37, 39-40)

Esau vowed revenge against Jacob – also binding words. He said even if he had to wait until his father died and Jacob came home to help bury him, he would kill him as soon as his time of mourning was over.

It was a great divide and it took both of them to create it – the impetuous Esau and the conniving Jacob. And yet … God is still at work.

I think I find that to be a most comforting aspect of Old Testament stories … it doesn’t take long to figure out that no matter how much people screw up, miss the point, forget God and even harm others, God sticks with God’s people, even if all God can work through us is a little bit of lemonade from all the bitter situations we sometimes bring forth in this world.

***

For the last two weeks Eden was blessed to hear proclamation of God’s love and activity through Lon and Elaine. I don’t know about you, but I am so thankful they are part of our community … and not only because it enabled me to take a little time off. More so because it’s good to hear multiple perspectives and voices about things as important as God, and God and us. When arranging for Lon and Elaine to preach and lead worship, I told them that although I had been preaching from Genesis this summer, it was up to them whether they continued that, or preached on one of the other texts. It seemed like a win-win situation to me … either this community of faith would get someone else’s take on this Abraham-through-Joseph storyline or you’d get a bit of a break from it.

That was okay too I thought, because, let’s face it, these are not easy texts to wrestle with along the rivers of our own lives. Sometimes when you’re doing something hard, something that takes a lot of stamina and persistence, a break or some opportunity to recharge is really helpful.

And so I feel ready and re-energized to continue with this story from Genesis today, starting with some cliff notes to get us caught up on how we got from Jacob fleeing from Esau to Jacob wrestling with God near a shallow part of the River Jabbok.

Two Sundays ago, we heard the story of the vivid dream Jacob had of God’s messengers moving up and down a ladder set to bridge heaven and earth. And he heard the Word of God spoken to him in the dream, saying, “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.” (Gen. 28:13-15)

God’s promise probably seemed pretty unlikely to Jacob as he laid there in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. But we already know about God and these seemingly impossible promises. And so we should not be surprised to find that God makes a way even for our trickster ancestor Jacob to come into a new community and to have a family too. Remember that in order to escape the wrath of Esau, he returned to his mother Rebecca’s people. Once there, he, like his father, met Rachel, the love of his life, at a well. She is the daughter of Laban. Laban, you’ll remember, is Jacob’s uncle. He welcomes Jacob wholeheartedly to the family. “When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” (Gen 29:13-14)

It is when Jacob expresses his desire for Rachel to be his spouse that we find his is not the only trickster in the family. Laban agrees and says in return he wants seven years of labor from Jacob. Jacob agrees, but seven years later, in the dark and with a conniving spirit, Laban sends Rachel’s older sister Leah into the marriage tent. Again – binding.

In the end, Jacob agrees to seven more years of labor to marry Rachel, and finally, he is able to take Rachel as his spouse too.

God gave Jacob many children. Leah felt small and invisible living in the shadow of the love Jacob only showed for Rachel. Still, it was her who gave birth to a first son, Reuben, then Simeon, Levi and Judah.

Like Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel did not conceive right away and it caused a lot of grief in the household. She told Jacob to try conceiving with her enslaved woman Bilhah, who bore two sons, named Dan and Naphtali.

These names may be sounding kind of familiar in your ear – they are the names of children at this point, but they will become the names of tribes – the 12 tribes of Israel.

Now when Leah’s child bearing days appeared to be over, she told Jacob to take her enslaved woman Zilpah, who also had two sons by Jacob, Gad and Asher.

(Note: This story reminds us that we need to continue to pray and seek justice for all who are enslaved and trafficked today.)

Surprisingly, or maybe not, Leah had more children too; two more sons, Issachar and Zebulun, and then a daughter, Dinah.

And finally, after years of anger and handwringing and worry, Rachel also had a son, and she named him Joseph. We’ll hear more of his story unfold starting next week.

So all that happened, which is enough, and there’s more. Like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob was also very successful, although some of it due to less-than-ethical tactics. But he was quite wealthy in his own right when God said to him that it was time to return to the land of his ancestors and kin and that God would go with him.

Jacob and Laban has a difficult parting. Both men tried to deceive one another more than once, but they did manage to reconcile. And when he could see that he could not stop Jacob and his household from leaving: “Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them; then he departed and returned home.” (Gen 31:55)

But Jacob still had the Esau situation to deal with, so he sent messengers ahead of him announcing his arrival and the wealth he was bringing back to the family. When word returned that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, he was scared and the increasingly humbled Jacob prayed to our God: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant … Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” (Gen 32:9-12)

Jacob is learning to fear God. He is learning that he has lost control of the webs of deceit he has woven. He is seeing that no trickery or smooth talking is going to stop Esau from killing him … if that’s what Esau wants to do.

And seemingly as an answer to Jacob’s prayer, after he has sent everyone away and is alone in the night with his worry and his vulnerability, God enters in, and God kicks his … pumpatookey.

But Jacob was strong in his ways. He contended all night. He fought hard against God. And finally God popped him in the hip socket … hard … permanently wounding him.

Jacob still kept wrestling and resisting though, because somewhere along the line he realized this was no ordinary man – this was God, or some otherworldly representative of God and Jacob wanted a binding contract from this man – a blessing – that was legitimately his.

It’s through that request that God finally prevails and Jacob stops resisting and fighting. And God, once again signaling something big is happening, renames Jacob “Israel” and then gives him the blessing to make it all binding.

***

I personally think you have to work pretty hard not to find points of familiarity in these stories – they are so us, as I’ve said in recent weeks. These people fight with and betray each other. They experience anger and remorse. They fight against God sometimes, figuring they’ve got it all under control or they can charm their way out of a corner. They do the hard work of reconciliation, even though sometimes it seems it’s because they had no other choice. They harm one another and they fall in love.

I find myself in here, my community and family, I recognize similar experiences in people like Rachel and Leah, Jacob and Laban, Esau.

But here’s the one thing that just seems to shout from this story this time around. Jacob went to the river alone – he was physically alone, but he also thought primarily in terms of himself alone. He often made selfish choices. He was Jacob, sweet-talking, good cooking, smooth skinned Jacob who fought against God for a whole night in the river mud.

But when he left he was Israel, being formed by God into much more than only Jacob. He was a whole nation containing tribes of different people and ancestral lines that will come up again and again throughout the bible reaching all the way to our Messiah.

He came into this experience as “I, Jacob” and he left as “We, Israel.”

And what could ring more familiar these days than that Christian call to think and act much more as “we” and far less as “I?”

We will get through this pandemic and these next necessary steps in the American Civil Rights Movement. But I think we, like these ancestors of ours, are meant to do more than just get through it. And I think what we can take from these ancestral stories of ours, and our good teacher Jesus, is that if we can do this more as a “we” instead of as a whole bunch of “I”s, we will come out on the other side closer to God, more in tune with our neighbor, and as better and brighter versions of our own baptized and renamed selves. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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