Sermon 05-11-14: “One Tough Mama”

May 16, 2014
Rebekah's story shows how God is like this stealthy young woman in a popular recent insurance commercial.

Rebekah’s story shows how God is like this stealthy young woman in a recent insurance commercial.

In this Mother’s Day themed sermon, I talk about one of my favorite biblical mothers, Rebekah. She’s a hero of faith to me, not because she was a perfect role model—far from it!—but because she was one tough mama, doing her best to trust in the Lord under very difficult circumstances. She teaches us a great deal about what it means to be a disciples of Jesus Christ!

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

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

On this Mother’s Day, I thought I would preach about a favorite mother of mine in the Bible, Rebekah. Oddly enough, not everyone likes her. Once on Facebook I referred to Rebekah as a “Bible hero,” and a clergy friend Geoff, who’s currently earning his Ph.D. in Old Testament, responded: He said, “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 ‘Bible 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.

If you’re of my generation, you remember those early days of Facebook many years ago when we were all getting in touch with old classmates and renewing old friendships online. I was wondering what happened to the person who was probably my best friend from childhood, Geoff—not the Geoff I mentioned earlier; a different one. So about five years ago, I was trying to find him online. I had gotten in touch with other old friends from back then. And I discovered something shocking. Instead of finding his Facebook page, I found his obituary. I did a double-take as you can imagine! I checked the names of his “survivors”: yep, those are his parents’ names; those are his sisters’ names. This is the same Geoff. He died just a month earlier. He was only 39.

In his all-too-brief life, Geoff was a restless, carefree, adventurous spirit—he was in many ways the opposite of me. I was always more than a little jealous of Geoff, jealous of his freedom, jealous of his insatiable romantic desire to live life to its fullest. It’s as if he took that lesson from Dead Poet’s Society, to “seize the day,” very seriously—in a way that I was always too cautious to do myself.

I talked to his parents after I found out about his death. Turns out, after college Geoff basically took his twenties off, avoided all adult responsibilities, moved to Aspen, Colorado, was supported in part by 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. Then he finally went to med school and became a successful doctor. He was engaged to be married when he died. He really, really wanted to be a dad, his parents told me. He wanted children, but he never had them…

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 white-water rafting… 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, yes, more frightening at times—than that.

I was lending a pastoral ear to a friend of mine as she told me about her struggles in her marriage, and how she was thinking about calling it quits. She said, “The only thing we’re doing successfully is co-parenting. I mean, we are raising great kids, but besides that…” And I’m like, “Parenting is one of the hardest things in the world. So if your marriage is at least getting that part right, well, that’s not nothing! That’s heroic! That’s worth celebrating. And that’s enough reason to keep working to save your marriage!”

So you can say Rebekah’s not a hero all you want. At the very least, Rebekah is a mother—one tough mama doing her best under difficult 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 set free. 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 create 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 Rebekah 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, Rebekah waited a long time for the child of promise to come—twenty years, in fact.

We are, in general, not good at waiting. I don’t watch local news, but I assume it’s still the same as it used to be. I assume the anchor still says, “We’ll find out how the Braves did after the weather, coming up next.” Then they cut to a commercial. And I’m like, why would I be sitting here waiting around to find out how the Braves did—or whether it’s going to rain or shine tomorrow—when I could get on my smartphone, my tablet, my laptop and find out right away? To think that people used to sit through commercials waiting for this information?

No… Our world has changed, and we’ve grown far more impatient! But that’s our problem. Do you think God has changed his timing to accommodate our lack of patience? Of course not! 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—the way God called Isaac and Rebekah. God called us, 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”?

I can hold out for maybe twenty days. Rebekah held out for 20 years! We can learn something from her example!

Notice, however, that 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! One important difference, however—in those days before OB/GYNs and hospitals and emergency C-sections—was that getting pregnant was also a good way to die! One of Rebekah’s own daughters-in-law, Rachel, would die delivering a baby!

We Christians often talk about how God has a “wonderful plan for our lives.” In the gospel tract “The Four Spiritual Laws,” the first “law,” in fact, says that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” And I mostly believe that… Except for maybe the “wonderful” part. It’s not that the life Christ offers us isn’t much better, much happier, much more joyful, than life without Christ. It’s just that when we’re living out God’s plan for our lives, it often may not seem so wonderful when we’re in the thick of it. And have you noticed how God’s plan for us never seems to work out as well or as smoothly as we thought it would?

I had a classmate in seminary who was working three jobs to pay for this very expensive education. Unlike me, she didn’t or couldn’t get the scholarship money she was counting on to pay for some of it. She said that many well-intentioned Christians would say things to encourage her: “Don’t worry, honey. If God is calling you to be a pastor, he’ll provide the money you need.” She said that was no comfort for her because, after all, God’s “call” doesn’t usually arrive as a certified letter in the mail that we can’t help but read. God’s call doesn’t arrive as a message on our smartphones.

“What if I got it wrong?” my classmate wondered. “What if God was calling me to do something else—what if God had some other plan for my life and I misunderstood what it was? What if the past four or five years of my life, including leaving a successful career behind, have been a mistake?”

And the hidden message underneath her words was, If this is God’s plan for my life, surely it would be easier!

And Rebekah is wondering the same thing. She had already waited 20 years to get pregnant and now this… But I love what she does in response. “She inquires of the Lord.” She asks God, “Why is this happening?” “If it is to be this way,” she tells God, “why do I live?”  In other words, “If God has called me to this special mission, if God has this wonderful plan for my life, 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!

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—their advice seems so wise, so clear, so common-sensical in the halcyon glow of expectant motherhood—but it never quite withstands the harsh daylight of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression and mastitis and well-intentioned husbands who just don’t get it—as they go off to work in the morning and come home wondering why you haven’t gotten anything done around the house all day!

But I love that Rebekah asks God why… I don’t believe God answers those questions most of the time, but I love that she asks. I love it because of what it reveals about Rebekah’s faith: She understands that God is up to something. She understands there’s a reason she’s going through this trial. I lived too much of my Christian life not asking the “why” question; not discerning God’s unseen hand at work in my life. When things didn’t work out according to my plans, my first response was always, “What did I do wrong?” And believe me, sometimes I do make terrible mistakes, but often it’s not that I’ve done something wrong; it’s that God has some other plan for me—and that’s why my plans didn’t work out. The question is, Will I have the faith to trust that God’s plan is better than my own?

My friend Stephanie was my worship leader up in Alpharetta. Twice a year she and the worship band host a big Coffee House concert event for the community on a Friday night. And it’s become quite popular. This spring, however, they were going to try something new. Instead of having the concert in the chapel of the church, they were going to have it outside, a concert under the stars. It would require great effort to get the stage and all the equipment set up outside in the parking lot, but it would be awesome… So long as it didn’t rain.

She told me that she had been praying long and hard that it wouldn’t rain. And I jokingly said something I probably shouldn’t have said—but Stephanie gets my sense of humor. I said, “Well, if it rains now after all this prayer, at least you won’t have to wonder whether God loves you or not. You’ll know for sure that he doesn’t!”

Isn’t that terrible? I wish I hadn’t said that, because as it turns out the concert under the stars was last Friday night! And it did rain!

But you could look at that event and say, “Well, our prayers don’t really accomplish anything, and what happens just happens, and God doesn’t have anything to do with it.” But this isn’t the biblical way of looking at things! Rebekah certainly didn’t see things this way. So I hope my friend Stephanie said, “Well, I guess the Lord didn’t want us to have this event outside. I don’t know why, but I’m going to trust that it will be O.K.”

In the same way, Rebekah rightly understood that events in the world don’t just happen; they happen for a reason. And she wanted to know why. She wanted to know what God was up to!

Remember earlier I mentioned my seminary classmate who was having trouble paying for school? I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know what she’s doing now. I don’t know if she misunderstood her call from God or not. But one thing I do know—and it’s something that today’s scripture also teaches us: God’s grace is always at work in our lives—always working to redeem our mistakes, our failures, and even our sins.

After all, consider the many mistakes that Rebekah makes. Consider the sins that she commits! Instead of simply trusting that God will somehow work out his plan—that Jacob and not Esau will be God’s chosen vessel to carry forward God’s saving plan for the world—instead if trusting God to make that happen, she takes matters into own hands. In the process, she conspires with Jacob to lie to her husband, to blaspheme God, and not to mention badly hurt her other son while she was at it.

What Rebekah does is really bad. But even her mistakes can’t derail God’s plans.

I’m reminded of a recent commercial from Nationwide Insurance. Two burglars are shown breaking into a house stealing things. What these burglars can’t see, however, is that there’s a stealthy, acrobatic young woman silently following in their footsteps, replacing all the items that they’re stealing with new things—better things. Those two men are a little like Rebekah and Jacob—actively working against God’s plan. And God is like that young woman: behind the scenes, undoing the damage that these people are doing and making something good out of it.

And isn’t this an encouraging message for us parents on Mother’s Day? One of our biggest fears as parents is that we’re going to do something to mess up our kids, right? So much is at stake, and oftentimes we really don’t know what we’re doing… We’re trying our best, but sometimes parenting is a shot in the dark, let’s face it. If it’s any consolation, none of us parents will probably mess up as badly as Rebekah did… And yet, if you read the next six chapters of Genesis, and finish reading about Jacob and Esau, somehow it all works out!

I’m not saying that we parents should go out of our way to mess things up for our kids! I’m just reminding us that Someone else is ultimately in control here, and he’s really good at redeeming our mistakes, our failures, and our sins…

Which reminds me of something else I love about Rebekah. Notice that when she tells Jacob about her plan to deceive Isaac, Jacob worries that her plan might backfire and instead of receiving a blessing, he’ll receive a curse. And what does Rebekah say? “Let your curse be on me.”

In other words, I’ll pay the price for your sin—and in a way she does because she ends up never seeing her beloved son Jacob again after he runs away from home. Not to mention all the heartache and stress and worry she has to endure. Rebekah suffers for the one she loves, so that he can be saved. And in this respect, God is not so different from Jacob’s loving mother, Rebekah, who, like all loving mothers, will do anything—even sacrifice her life—to save her children.

We’re reminded that on the cross God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, took our sins upon himself, suffered and died for us, sacrificed his life in order to save us, God’s beloved children. [Invitation.]


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