Sermon from 05-09-10: “Relatively Speaking, Part 1: Rebekah and Jacob”

Sermon Text: Genesis 25:19-28; Genesis 27:1-17, 41-45

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I posted something on Facebook this week about how I consider Rebekah, the focus of today’s scripture a hero of the Bible. Oddly enough, not everyone agrees with me—including my clergy friend Geoff, who’s working on a Ph.D. in Old Testament. He wrote, “Not a fan of the whole family. Isaac: waste of space… Esau: trades his birthright for a bowl of soup. Moron. Rebekah: sells out one son for the sake of another. Jacob: probably the best of the lot (which isn’t saying much)… Sorry, Brent, but I find it hard at times to think about these characters in terms of ‘biblical heroes.’” Far from being heroes, he wrote, they are “object lessons”; they put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

Maybe all that’s true, but, hey… no one’s perfect. And I still love Rebekah. And I’m going to make a case for her!

You know, last week I performed that song last week about turning 40, which was in part about staring down middle age, coming to grips with regrets about never having written the Great American Novel, and dreams that didn’t pan out… In the midst of these feelings, I learned recently that an old friend, also named Geoff, died in a tragic accident in December at 39. In his all-too-brief life, he was a restless, carefree, adventurous spirit—he was in many ways the opposite of me, the “Bizarro Brent.” I was a little jealous of his freedom and this insatiable romantic desire to live life to its fullest. It’s as if he took that lesson of Dead Poet’s Society, to “seize the day,” very seriously—in a way that I was always too cautious to do.

After college he his twenties off, avoided all adult responsibilities for as long as he could, moved to Aspen, Colorado, lived off a rich girlfriend, and devoted himself to skiing, snowboarding, mountain-climbing, rock-climbing, and white-water rafting. He was fearless and courageous—a daredevil and a thrill-seeker. He finally went to med school and became a successful doctor, and though he was engaged to be married this August and wanted children, he never had them… So he never had a family, never had kids…

Having children… Raising and keeping a family together. You want to talk about adventure? Talk about courage? Talk about strength? Talk about taking risks? Spare me the mountain-climbing, the wind-surfing, the snowboarding… Show me a mother doing her best. Show me a father doing his best. I honestly believe that there is nothing in this world more difficult, more challenging, more demanding—and more frightening at times—than that.

So you say Rebekah’s not a hero? At the very least, Rebekah is a mother—one tough mama doing her best under the circumstances—and that is itself heroic. But even more, her experience as a mother, imperfect as she may be, teaches us a lot about faith in God and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Rebekah was alive near the very beginning of God’s rescue mission for this world. Humanity was enslaved to sin and needed to be freed from it. Human beings needed to be brought into a right relationship with God and with one another. And God chose regular people—imperfect, flawed, and sinful people—like Rebekah to implement this plan, to make bring into begin a nation, Israel, set apart by God to bear witness to God’s love, and ultimately to bring salvation into the world through Jesus.

One problem: If she was going to be a part of this plan, she needed a child—a son, an heir—and like Sarah, her late mother-in-law, before her, Rebekah waited a long time—twenty years—for the child of promise to come. We are, in general, not good at waiting. I don’t watch local news, but last week the 11:00 news was on in the background, and the anchor said, “We’ll find out how the Braves and Hawks did after the weather, coming up next.” Then they cut to a commercial. And I thought, why would I be sitting here waiting around to find out either how the Braves or Hawks did—or whether it’s going to rain or shine tomorrow—when I could open my laptop and find out right away? You mean people used to sit through commercials waiting for this stuff? Our world has changed! But do you think God has changed? As believers, like it or not, we are required to wait on God.

Let’s say that we have an intuition that God has called us to do something. But we are helpless to make it happen on our own; it’s beyond our control. So we pray about it. And we wait. How long do we wait before we give up? How long before we second-guess ourselves and say, “Well, I guess it isn’t God’s will”? Twenty days? Rebekah waited 20 years without giving up!

Think you can learn something about patience and persistence from Rebekah? We also learn from her that God doesn’t necessarily respect the plans that we human beings make. When Rebekah finally gets pregnant—with fraternal twins—she has a very difficult, stressful, and painful pregnancy. I know there are some mothers in this congregation who know what that’s like.

We fathers really have no idea what that’s like. But we’ve seen the movie Alien… or its sequels, and we fear that pregnancy is at least a little like that. I’ve heard at least a couple of expectant mothers say that they have nightmares that the children inside them never come out. That they’re weeks, months, years past their due date, and they just keep growing and growing. They’re asking to borrow the car and they’re still in there! They’re graduating high school and they’re still in there!

So, as relieved as Rebekah was to be pregnant, her pregnancy is not what she expected. In frustration, she says, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?”  In other words, “If God has called me to this special mission, if God has this plan for me, if God is using me as part of this special blessing, why all this trouble? It’s not supposed to be this hard, is it? I didn’t count on this. This isn’t at all what I planned!” So Rebekah prays about it. And through her prayer, God gives her the unsettling news: This future that she hoped for and dreamed of was not going to unfold the way she planned. The world as she understands it is about to be turned upside down through birth of these children.

You mothers out there—you can relate to this, can’t you? You know about your world being turned upside down by children. The what-to-expect books and the how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep books and the-right-way-to-discipline-your-child books—whose advice seems so wise, so clear, so common-sensical in the halcyon glow of expectant motherhood—never quite withstands the harsh daylight of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression and mastitis and well-intentioned husbands who just don’t get it.

Rebekah’s world was turned upside down by having children, of course, but even more so: God told her that the older son in the family, who by rights was supposed to inherit most of the estate and receive the biggest blessing and be in charge of things when his father died, was not the chosen one. God had other plans. Jacob, not Esau, was to be the child of promise, the father of the nation.

The Bible gives us some clues as to why. You might have heard the story about how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for the bargain-basement price of a bowl of stew, which you can read about at the end of chapter 25. Scripture says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The point is that Esau, unlike Jacob, doesn’t seem to care much about this future that God has promised him. He doesn’t have a lot of faith. He doesn’t seem well-suited to be the child of blessing and carry the weight of this responsibility on his shoulders.

Don’t you think like a good mother, Rebekah knows this about her children? After all, we as parents hope and pray that our children will grow up into responsible adults and succeed in this world. We do that in part by helping them uncover their unique gifts. What better blessing can a mother give to her children than to free them to be the people God made them to be.

We parents sometimes want to force our children to be little versions of ourselves, we want them to be not what God wants them to be, but what we want them to be. That’s a recipe for failure and unhappiness. That’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole. If Isaac had his way, and he passed the blessing to Esau—oblivious to Esau’s personality or gifts—he would be setting him up for failure. Maybe Rebekah, out of love, wants to protect Esau from that.

Say what you will about Jacob. He’s persistent, tenacious—he doesn’t give up. He believes in God’s promises. He doesn’t let obstacles stand in his way.

Yes, you may say, but Rebekah deceived her husband in order to get him to give Jacob the blessing. And that’s true. But let’s not judge her too harshly. One thing’s for sure: She was, like all good mothers, doing the very best she could under very difficult circumstances.

And it’s not like she’s getting a lot of help from her husband!

Isaac seems oblivious to Esau’s unfitness for the mission—not to mention God’s will. Remember when God tells her that Jacob is to be the chosen one? That was a big deal—a life-changing event. Do you think that’s the kind of information Rebekah would have shared with her husband? Of course it is! And what does Isaac do with that information? Disregards it. Do you think this was a sore subject between them? Something they argued about? In deceiving her husband, she might have been preventing Isaac from committing a greater sin. Or maybe Isaac wasn’t as blind and clueless as he seemed, and he pretended to bless Esau, knowing deep down that he was really blessing Jacob—and that Rebekah’s deception gave him the cover he needed while also enabling him to be faithful to God.

We can’t be sure, but this is one reason I love the Bible; it’s so rich.

One thing is for sure: whatever else we may say about Rebekah, she was willing to stake her life on her faith in God. When Rebekah shares the plan with Jacob, he says, “Perhaps my father will think I’m mocking him, and I’ll receive a curse instead of a blessing.” Rebekah said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son.” Can you imagine?

She did so not knowing for sure whether this plan would work or whether it would end in disaster. Like us, she may have craved the comfort and security of bedrock certainty… Life isn’t often like that, is it? We want black and white; we often get gray. So what she does is incredibly risky, but she takes that risk believing more than anything else is that God had a future for her family; God would prove himself true; and God would make it all work out—somehow. But she risked everything.

Mothers, you know about this, too, don’t you? Parenting is fraught with risks, second-guessing, and uncertainty. You do what you think is best for your children under the circumstances, and you pray. There are no guarantees that it will work out. But at the same time you do your best believing that the future is not ultimately in your hands; it’s in God’s hands. And somehow, against all odds, you trust that God will make it work out. That takes a lot of faith. Rebekah teaches us about that, too.

There is so much grace in this story! In spite of all the mistakes that this very human family makes, God doesn’t give up on them. God can work through us, and often times in spite of us.

What about you? Have you experienced this grace?

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