A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12, Sunday, July 27, 2014
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country– giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. – Genesis 29:15-28
Have you noticed that there’s a common thread running throughout many of the stories in the Bible, and that the common thread has to do with the character of the people whom God calls and presses into service? Be they patriarchs, prophets, priests, kings or disciples, not one of them is perfect.
Far from it, in fact; and the reason for that is that they are all human. So at the very least, if any of us believes that we have to be perfect to do God’s work, we can think again and be thankful that that’s not the case.
This morning’s story about Jacob and Laban is a study of flawed characters if there ever was one. The story, though, begins with Abraham. As you might remember, God promised that “a multitude of nations” would be populated through Abraham – not because he was so perfect, but because Abraham trusted that God always had his best interest at heart.
So in fulfillment of God’s promise, Abraham and his wife, Sarah, gave birth to son Isaac, who grew up and married Rebekah; and the two of them gave birth to twin sons Esau and Jacob. Now here’s where the story gets interesting.
Esau was born first and loved the outdoors and grew up to be all brawn while his quiet, indoor-type brother, Jacob, who resented being born second, grew up to be all brain. One day when Esau came in from a long day of hunting, Jacob knew how famished he would be and took advantage of the situation. He got Esau to make a bargain with him. Esau could have all the bread and lentil stew that he wanted if he would just give Jacob a little something in return. And that something was his birthright – something which gave the holder favored status in the family as well as a double portion of inheritance. Because Esau was that hungry and the stew smelled that good, he made that exchange.
Years later, when their father, Isaac, was old and feeble and needed to give his deathbed blessing which, by custom, was given to the first born son, it was Jacob who once again used trickery to deceive his father into giving the blessing to him instead. That blessing effectively gave Jacob authority over his older brother Esau and included the promise of divine protection. When Esau found out what had happened, he was furious and vowed to kill his brother.
When their mother, Rebekah, heard what Esau was planning to do, she knew she had to get Jacob out of the house. So she sent him to her brother Laban’s estate in Haran. And that’s where we find him in today’s reading from Genesis. But wait…the tables have been turned. For all the tricking Jacob had done, it was now his turn to be tricked.
Jacob fell in love with his uncle Laban’s second daughter, Rachel – finding her to be “graceful and beautiful” (Genesis 29:17). So Laban and Jacob worked out a deal in which Jacob could have Rachel’s hand in marriage but only after he had labored for his uncle for 7 years.
As it happened, Laban had another daughter whose name was Leah. She may not have been as graceful and beautiful as Rachel, but we are told that at least she had “lovely eyes” (Genesis 29:17). Leah was older than Rachel and, as was the custom, had to be given in marriage before her younger sister Rachel could be.
We don’t know if Jacob knew of this custom or not but he found out about it on his wedding night when he was expecting to be with Rachel, the woman he loved and thought he was marrying. Imagine his surprise when he realized in the light of the morning that he had been with Leah instead!
Angry and confused, Jacob approached Laban who told him that he could indeed marry Rachel but only after completing his bridal week with Leah and then for good measure Jacob would have to serve Laban for another 7 years. But before feeling too sorry for Jacob, we need to remember that the practice of polygamy was alive and well. So Jacob had both Leah and Rachel as his wives.
And that was a good thing because as fate would have it, Leah, not Rachel, was the wife who was extremely fertile and bore Jacob not one son but six of them. Rachel was only able to conceive once and she gave birth to a son who was named Joseph. And as you might remember, Joseph was the one whom his brothers sold into slavery and then convinced their father, Jacob, that Joseph had died.
So the broken promises, fractured covenants and deceit continued into the next generation of God’s chosen people. Chosen for what reason, though? Certainly not for their upstanding character! At least that’s what we conclude with our limited vision and understanding of God’s ways. We should all know by now, though, that it’s not always easy to tell what God is up to or just whom God will choose to fulfill His will.
In this morning’s story, who would have known that Leah, the less desirable of Jacob’s wives, and the object of her father’s deceit, would be the one through whom more of the tribes of Israel would be populated than through her beautiful sister, Rachel – the one whom Jacob loved the most. Or who would have thought that Jacob, who tricked his brother out of his birthright would have been tripped up by a marriage custom favoring first-born versus second-born daughters? We would probably call it ironic. But it’s also God’s redeeming nature at work – making the best of a messy family situation.
And it’s as alive today as it was in Jacob’s day, especially when it comes to families. The names and faces may be different, but the behavior is still the same. Yet God seems willing to stand ready to redeem our worst behavior – to take our weaknesses and turn them into strengths; to take our failures and turn them into blessings for one simple reason. And that is that God loves us.
And as Kris said in his Children’s sermon, that love is super strong. And as we heard this morning in Paul’s letter to the Romans, nothing can separate us from the love of God. All we have to do, in return, is have faith in that love – have faith that God has our best interest at heart. That’s the hard part. But why?
In his book called Addiction and Grace (New York: Harper Collins, 1988, pp. 125-126) author Gerald May talks about God’s love as a mystery. “It’s not earned” he writes. “It is not accomplished or achieved. It is not extracted through manipulation or seduction. It is just given. Nothing in our conditioning (our upbringing, our experience) prepares us for this radical reality.”
In other words, it doesn’t compute! When have we been given something for nothing? When have we been taught that something unearned is worth anything? When have we not manipulated circumstances to get what we want? Isn’t that why it’s so hard for us to imagine that God would have such faith in us to use us, as highly flawed as we are, to fulfill His will?
Yet God does. History has shown that to be true time and time again. This morning’s story is just one example of that, but an important example because it describes how God uses ordinary people like Jacob and Laban to bring about something as significant as the birth of Israel as a community of faith.
And it didn’t occur in a peaceful way among successful people of upstanding character, but rather “within a context of conflict, human love and service and God’s ongoing blessing in the midst of failure” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p 560).
And that’s the good news for us today. What a relief that should be for all of us to know that because God’s love for us is so strong, God will continue to work with us, and through our failures and foibles, to bring about a favorable outcome. That’s called redemption. It’s God’s speciality. And thank God it is.