Saturday, July 26, 2014

Family Schemes

Genesis 29:15-30
July 29, 2014
William G. Carter

Then 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. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

This is one of those Bible stories I remember from childhood. Jacob the trickster gets tricked. He gets what’s coming to him. He swindled his brother twice, fooled his father once, and now he gets a taste of his own medicine. The moral of the story: what goes around comes around.

On the surface, that's what the story says. But the longer I have lived with it, the more it makes me blush.

For one thing, one day it dawned on me why Jacob missed which sister he was marrying. Certainly she wore a veil. Curiously she didn't remove it when her father delivered her to Jacob’s tent for the wedding night. Only in the morning did Jacob discover with whom he had consummated the marriage. I thought the trickster was supposed to be astute!

But then I realized that the wedding night was most likely preceded by a big party. The wine was flowing, the band was playing, and the entire community came out to celebrate with great enthusiasm. Imagine the bleary-eyed shock of Jacob when he rolls over in the morning and discovers the wrong girl next to him in bed. And this is in the Bible! It made me blush.

Of course we already know that Jacob has his eye on Rachel. She was a shepherdess and he saw her going to the well. As soon as he laid eyes on her, he hustles over to lift an enormous stone covering the well. A real he man! And then he discovers she is a relative, the daughter of his Uncle Laban. After a month of living with the relatives, Jacob the Heel Grabber wants Rachel. He tells Uncle Laban, he was willing to work seven years for her, and then, as we heard, seven more. The Old Testament says, "Such was the love he had for her." To quote the Little Rascals, how romantical! 

He wants one sister, doesn’t care for the other. But he is married to the ugly one and wants the pretty one, so he marries them both. Two wives, that's complicated. I have had two wives, but only one at a time. That was complicated enough. Anybody who has been married knows one marriage is usually complicated enough. But Jacob has two wives, and they are sisters. It made me blush.

And this business of two wives - we cannot dismiss it by saying, “That was then, this is now.” There are lots of views of marriage in scripture. Usually the culture of the time dictated what a marriage looked like. Oh, I know, Genesis begins by saying, "a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife." But which wife for Jacob? He desires Rachel, gets her sister instead, and then keeps working for Rachel so he can have her too. In the process, Uncle Laban gives him two additional female servants. How generous!

If I might speed ahead two chapters, have you heard of the twelve tribes of Israel? They come from the twelve sons of Jacob, who had four mothers all residing in the same tent. Jacob was serious about God's instruction to be fruitful and multiply. Read further into chapter 29 and 30. It will make you blush.

And then there are the gender politics. If you are the father of two daughters, as I am, how would it go over if you bartered with their suitors for their hands in marriage? Just say to that rosie-cheeked young man, "Work for me for seven years and you can have her." I know how that would go. I have gotten some discounted yard work out of the guys who have been interested in my girls and it has never turned out well. Never. And here was Uncle Laban, playing on the affections of Jacob to get fourteen years of hard labor out of him. He does not appear the least bit interested in the welfare of his girls. It makes me blush.

But what really disturbs me is the honesty of the story: how family members take advantage of one another, how kin use one another, how one generation can sell out the next. That makes me blush. Because the Bible is unabashedly honest about our families.

Maybe not your family. Your family may be the one family on earth that is perfect. But there are an awful lot of families who hear a story like this and begin to blush. They know what it is like to be in a family like this one, with plot twists and unusual connections and relatives you can’t trust. To the neighbors, it might look like they have it all together. But the truth is a different story. Do you know about families like that?

Before I think about my own family, I think about the family of Kathleen Norris, the great writer. She writes about them in her book Amazing Grace. I had heard her grandfather was a minister, but here is how she fills in the rest of the story:

My grandfather Norris, the son of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, had been a clerk at a lumber company, drifting through life, raising a little hell, and playing banjo in a jug band. He lived in a boarding house until he got his landlady’s daughter pregnant, and married her.

Their marriage, never a happy one, was further strained when my grandfather was “saved” at one of Billy Sunday’s revival meetings. In a way, he was trying to come to terms with his inheritance as a preacher’s son, but the immediate effects were dramatic. He promised Jesus that he, too, would become a Methodist minister and proceeded to work his way through West Virginia Wesleyan, in the town of Buckhannon. It took him seven years, in which he clerked at a clothing store and filled pulpits in the churches of the surrounding area.

In the sixth year, his wife proved too immature for the responsibilities of mothering, and when their second child was still an infant, she ran away with another man. Friends and relatives helped my grandfather care for the two children until he graduated. Shortly before he was to take his first church, in Wallace, West Virginia, he looked up at a young woman he knew, the daughter of an accountant at one of the lumber companies where he worked. Against her parents’ wishes, she married him, seeing in the proposal her own “calling” to serve the church.[1]

I have heard family stories like that, full of twists and turns, detours and temporary destinations. God never seems to work in a straight line, because families don’t move that way. That’s how it is with every family I know.

You have heard me quote Frederick Buechner in this pulpit from time to time. He is a Presbyterian minister and world renowned novelist, now getting close to his ninetieth birthday. His words have given insight and depth to thousands of people. What is not widely known is his father’s suicide when Fred was a child or his daughter’s struggle with anorexia which almost killed her. In therapy Fred realized her illness came in part from his attempt to tamp down his feelings about his own father. It was the family habit. He kept a thumb on his feelings, he kept a thumb on his daughter’s feelings, and one day it all imploded. It was only decades later, as Buechner wrote honestly about the mess of his own family, that he could find some sort of healing. As somebody said to him, “You have been a good steward of your own pain.”[2]

Isn’t this how it is? Little in our families will move in a straight line. Terrible things happen. Relatives stop talking to one another. A brother hits it big and never comes home. Two sisters squabble for most of their lives. The addiction of grandparents is bequeathed to their grandchildren. Children die too early. Somebody gets pregnant at an inconvenient time. A lost job pushes the household to move somewhere far away. A couple divorces and then later remarries. A major illness forces people to sell the house. I will bet you know some tales like these – and they may lie closer than you are willing to share.

A man told me about going into the Navy. It was his only way out of the small dirt farm where he lived. Each week, he wrote to the girl he loved back home. Each month he sent home some money to be saved. When he went to an extravagant port of call and found something special, he dreamed of setting up a home with his new wife, so he bought it and shipped it home.

The time came for discharge. He took the long journey home, embraced everybody, and winked at his girl. Then he said, “Where is all the stuff that I sent home?” His folks said, “We sold it. We thought it was for us, and we needed the money. That’s how we do it in our family.” Needless to say, he started daydreaming about leaving home.

Uncle Laban says, “You wanted the younger daughter before the older one? That’s not how we do it in our family.” The irony is thick. He says this to Jacob, the younger brother who swindled the older brother, not once but twice. Jacob is hiding out from his brother – fourteen years in this story alone, with more years to come. The brothers don’t speak, of course. Their parents Isaac and Rebekah don’t come to either of Jacob’s weddings, if they even know where he is or what he’s been doing. No, the distance was built in.

So Jacob the Trickster is tricked. But he will have a few other tricks up his sleeve, including a really big trick for old Uncle Laban. Family life as usual. What goes around comes around.

Meanwhile, where is God while all of this nonsense is going on? Where is God in Genesis 29? Never mentioned in this section of the story, never mentioned until the babies start coming. God may be in the circumstances, but is certainly not pulling the strings of these people as if they are puppets. No, God gives enough free will for people to take advantage of the people they live with. And in the thick of everything, there is always the possibility God will create beauty out of the harshest situations we know.

If God is in the story, it’s like that great line from one of Flannery O’Connor’s novels: “He saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.”[3]

So let’s wind this up. Look at how the book of Genesis does theology. Genesis does not impose abstracted principles upon us. No, Genesis tells stories, stories that are close to home. Most of the people in the Bible aren't any better than us -- and we certainly are not any better than them. If there is such a thing as holiness, it comes from God and not from us. The human family of which Jacob’s family is a part is prone to the same missteps and misgivings that we make every day. I’m enough of a Calvinist to know the messes come all the time. Yet the great spiritual mystery is that God is in the thick of it all, offering unrequited love, unexpected blessing, and deep, deep healing.

The Christian church testifies to this. Christians are really no better nor worse than the rest of the human family. But we gather to affirm there is more to life than the messes our families create. We tell of the holy God who blesses one generation after another, the human Jesus who gives his life to reconcile all that is broken within us and among us, and the Holy Spirit who continues to blow free grace on those who are not worthy of it -- yet are invited to respond.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 38-39.
[2] Mr. Buechner tells the story at
[3] Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Portal to Another Dimension

Genesis 28:10-19
July 20, 2014
William G. Carter

Last week, we heard of Jacob, the Heel-Grabber. From his brother Esau, he slyly took the rights and privileges of being the first-born child, acquiring them for a bowl of lentil soup. When she was pregnant, God had hinted to their mother Rebekah that this would happen, that the older of the twins “would serve the younger.”

And so it came to pass, years later, that with Rebekah’s help, Jacob would swindle Esau out of the family blessing. She had remembered God’s Word to her, that the “older would serve the younger,” so she did what she could to make it happen. Disguising Jacob as his hairy, smelly brother, and preparing her blind husband’s favorite meal, she sent Jacob to father Isaac where he received the family blessing, a blessing intended for Esau, who by all accounts was a dim bulb.

Again, this is some family. Bill Moyers calls them a mother-and-son team of con artists, who take advantage of a blind man and his first-born son. Isaac blessed Jacob, who promptly skedaddled out of there. When Esau discovered what happened, he let out a howl and began to plot his brother’s death.

To save Jacob’s life, Mother Rebekah said to Father Isaac, “I’m getting tired of these Hittite women around here. You know, Esau married a couple of them. They are driving me crazy and I don’t want Jacob to marry someone like that. Let’s send off Jacob further away to meet a nice girl.” And here is what happened next:

Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “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.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

One of my first true-blue spiritual experiences came when I was seventeen years old. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and I was feeling like a surly teenager. Escaping to my bedroom, I closed the door, put on my headphones, and listened to some music. It was a new recording of pianist Keith Jarrett, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and the great bass player Charlie Haden, who passed away just last week. They were playing with a German string orchestra, and I had not yet heard the album.

I laid down on my bed and closed my eyes. Maybe I was tired, or still working on the previous day’s turkey, or just weary of my family, but pretty soon I was near the boundary between sleep and wakefulness. As I listened to the shimmering music, I felt like I was lifted into the air. It was something like a trance, except I was completely alert. There was peace and tranquility, even though I had been on the outs with my family. Somehow I was lifted and then brought down gently. As the music concluded, I felt like a different person.

Have you ever had a moment like that? Call it a spiritual moment. A moment that feels like you were in the presence of God, or at least the presence of angels? It’s my observation from years as a pastor that these moments can come to any of us. They are not restricted to Bible characters from a time long ago. No, they can come here and now. They can catch us unaware. At least that’s what happened to me, in a bedroom with blue striped wallpaper in a housing development in a small town.

So we hear Jacob wake from a dream and say, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!”

According to the stories of Genesis, this is his first actual encounter with God. His mother heard God speak directly to her in a prophecy about her twins (25:23). His father had been directed by God to move around, first to some well-watered Philistine land and then off to Beer-Sheba. God spoke to Isaac in each place. Now God finds Jacob – and speaks the same family promises, personalized for him and a new generation. Jacob marks the spot and calls it “Bethel,” literally, “house of God.” He sets it up as a shrine and marks it as a special place where he can return.

Now, I never did name my bedroom with the blue striped wallpaper even though I returned there every night. But here’s what I did do: remember that record album? I played it album over and over again, trying to repeat that spiritual experience. In fact, I played it again yesterday morning while I was working on this sermon. The moment never came back. Not from playing that recording, at least.

I have had other moments and other places when God surprised me. I remember a vista on Lower Wolfjaw Mountain in the Adirondacks, a farmhouse in the Appalachian hills northwest of here, a red rock canyon in New Mexico, a stone chapel in the North Sea surrounded by noisy sheep. Those are the moments I remember. As you turn over the stones of memory, you may be able to remember some too. As God said to the prophet Isaiah, “The earth is my footstool.” I take that to mean sometimes God touches down.

That was Jacob’s experience. It is an extraordinary moment. He had no reason to expect it. Jacob is not a person of prayer. He does not seem the least bit religious. And his character is anything but good and upright. The Bible seems strangely indifferent to all of his lying and conniving. Like his mother, Jacob reaches for what he believes is his. And then God finds him – and declares, that indeed, it is all his. God says,

I am the God of grandfather Abraham and father Isaac.
            I am the God of your children and grandchildren.
            This land is their land.
            Every family on earth shall be blessed by your family
            And I am with you.

Let me say it again: this is God’s Word to a thief. It is the essence of grace. God speaks kindly to this conniving schemer, withholding all punishment, restraining all accountability. God never says to Jacob, “You had better shape up if you want anything out of me.” Oh no; God simply gives him the promise of Abraham and honors the blessing of Isaac . . . because Jacob is part of his family.

It reminds me of a confusing moment in the recent history of Lackawanna County. Some years ago, one of our politicians got in trouble with the law. I know, you’re going to say “which one?” This was a United States congressman. He was brought up on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy. A local Catholic priest came to his aid and announced, “We are going to throw him a parade to show our support.” All of this was confusing to me, since I was still relatively new to the area. But it was explained on Channel 16 one night. A roving reporter interviewed a parade-goer who said, “He may be a crook, but he’s our crook.”

His name might as well be Jacob. That’s how the God of Abraham and Isaac regards Jacob the heel-grabber. God says, “He may be a crook, but he’s all mine.” All mine. God appears to him, fully aware of what Jacob has done yet never rubbing his nose in it. For one thing, God is not done with Jacob yet. Oh no, anything but!

In the moment, it is enough for God to come. God interrupts his escape from his brother. God finds him in a moment of vulnerability, revealing there are angels coming down to earth to provide what the earth most needs, and there are angels ascending to heaven to lift earth’s aches and pains to the place where they can be healed. We call it “Jacob’s Ladder,” but actually it is a holy circulatory system, where the power of God is coming and going all the time.

That’s what Jacob sees. “Surely God is in this place,” he says. It’s a way of saying, “God is in this life of ours, and we did not know it.”

Like that woman who lost her home in a tornado. Her house has no roof, the laundry is strewn around the surrounding fields, her house cat is missing. But she cries tears of joy as she describes how people from a faraway church have shown up with hot food, fresh water, and clothing for her children. “I don’t think God was in that terrible storm,” she says, “but God came to me in the gifts of these people.” Then she adds, “I never expected that.”

Just exactly what kind of God are we talking about? Maybe you noticed that the story reveals a great deal. Here are a few things I learned anew by reflecting on this story:

·         God slips into the shadows just out of our sight.
·         God can come to us cloaked in our dreams, somewhere on the border of sleep and consciousness.
·         God sees what we do, and what we don’t do.
·         God knows the future, but allows us to live our lives here and now.
·         God does not control us, but somehow works out the purposes of heaven through us.
·         God stands above our family squabbles, personal vendettas, and human conflicts.
·         God is kinder to us than we deserve, promising Jacob the moon -- and then some.
·         God desires that we flourish – that we live and flourish – notice how God says, “your offspring will be like dust of the earth … like grains of sand …” That’s really generous.

·         One more observation: God is not bound to a single place. In the words of today’s Psalm, “Where can I flee your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” And to keep going, if I lie down in Bethel and put my head on a rock pillow, you are there . . . and I did not know it.

Do you know what we have here today? The storyteller of Genesis is teaching us about God. I think that is a primary purpose of this story. In grand Jewish fashion, the storyteller is holding two contradictory truths about God in tension: (1) we don’t know where God is, and (2) God is here. When we discover where God is, we can name it and mark it. Yet that doesn’t mean that God is there.

We can set up the altar, burn the incense, lift up our prayers, and trust that God hears us. Yet at that moment, God’s ladder may be set up somewhere else, with angels ascending and descending over there. And in this way, we are reminded that we don’t manipulate God to show up on cue. True-blue spiritual moments are not manufactured by laser-beam light shows, throbbing music, or smoke and mirrors. That’s show biz, not the Holy One of Israel. God is free to come and go, just like his own angels descending and ascending.

So what we have today is a story to prepare us for the moments when God shall come. We can’t predict them, but we can prepare for them. We can open our hearts, turn off the alarm systems, and pray for eyes to see and ears to hear when God shall come. We ask that we might be ready, that we wouldn’t miss it.

A few years ago, I found myself in Sedona, Arizona. Ever been there? Striking rock formations right out of an old Road Runner cartoon – I think they filmed those cartoons in Sedona. The new-age types love that place. They claim it is full of spiritual energy, that there is a vortex there between heaven and earth. I don’t know about that. One gift shop after another was hawking crystals, incense, and esoteric junk of all kinds.

But then our family made its way to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. If you’re ever in Sedona, don’t miss it. The chapel is built around a huge steel cross that looks like it has been thrust down into a red rock cliff. Many years ago, a woman I know went there as a tourist with her husband. They thought they were sight-seeing; in truth, their souls were still mending. It was a year or so after losing a son who died three days after he was born.

The tour guide explained about the chapel. She told about the wealthy woman who commissioned it with some guidance from architect Frank Lloyd Wright. That was interesting, and the woman sat in a pew and gazed at the extraordinary landscape through the chapel windows. Then it happened – she had a vision of Jesus Christ. He beckoned to her - and he smiled. She gasped, started to weep, and then he was gone.

“It was the last thing we expected,” she said, “and just what we needed.” After all these years, when she tells the story, her eyes still fill up with tears, her heart still full of deep joy.

“Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” The theologian Belden Lane asks, “How do you know a place is a holy place?” Did a miracle once happen there? Are there worship services in that location? What makes it a sacred place?

His answer is simple and profound: the holy place finds you. The sacred place is not chosen, it chooses.[1] God chooses to find you there. This may happen only once, never to be repeated. But when God comes, you know it. And after you stand and wipe your eyes, you continue on your journey – and you are a different person.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Belden Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) 19.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Mama Always Liked Me More

Genesis 25:19-34
July 13, 2014
William G. Carter

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, [ twenty year gap here…] and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” 

When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

A man named Roger got down on his knee and popped the question, “Darlene, will you marry me?” She exclaimed, “Yes! I will!” Bursting into tears, she helped him to his feet, threw her arms around him, and whispered, “Do you know what this means? It’s time to meet the family.”

If you have been through a similar moment, you  know how daunting this can be. After hearing all the legends, now we can connect faces to the stories. There’s crazy uncle Brian who loves to start an argument, and his long-suffering wife Cindy, who always burns the pot roast. There’s Aunt Towanda, who escaped her first husband who used to smack her around. Don’t forget cousin Tallullah; she was engaged three times but never actually got to the altar. Or second-cousin Eddie; we call him our second-cousin, but, let’s say more complicated than that.

It’s time to meet the family. So let’s meet the family of Isaac. There’s Isaac and Rebekah, and their twins Jacob and Esau. Isaac was the miracle child, born to Abraham and Sarah. His name means “Laughter,” in honor of God’s big joke of his birth. This is what we generally know about them.

But as you may have inferred from the reading, there is much more to the family than meets the eye.

For a guy whose name is Laughter, Isaac doesn’t laugh very much. In fact, we hardly ever hear him say much at all. In the Bible, the last time he talked was when he was twelve years old. That was the dark day when his father almost killed him. The family now claims it was a test from God, kind of a “how much do you love me?” kind of test. Grandpa Abraham got through it, but Isaac hasn’t said very much ever since.

When Isaac was forty, his father arranged his marriage for him. Do you have any forty year old sons still hanging around the tent? Perhaps you would like to arrange their marriages too. Who knows – maybe Isaac had a difficult time talking to people, or a hard time trusting anyone. I do know this is the book of Genesis, and after the first six days, nothing happens very quickly in the book of Genesis. Nothing. The ways of God are revealed over long stretches of time.

Rebekah was Isaac’s much younger wife. The father of Isaac’s servant had spotted her by a well in another village. He had promised Abraham that he would find a suitable wife for Isaac. So he went scouting around with ten camels and a lot of expensive jewelry. Rebekah was a pretty young lady, and sensitive too. It seemed like a match made in heaven, so she agreed to go to Isaac, sight unseen. And when her eyes met Isaac’s, it was, as they say, love at first sight.

But like her mother in law Sarah, who died before they could meet, Rebekah could not bear any children.  It seemed to be a repeating issue. For twenty years Isaac and Rebekah rocked an empty cradle. Twenty years. That’s a long time to keep trying, to keep hoping, to keep praying. Picture the two lovebirds walking by the light of ten million stars, murmuring, “At least we have one another.”

And then it happened. Isaac prayed one more time for a baby and God said, “OK.” Finally! Remember that old promise from God to Isaac’s father Abraham? “I’m going to make your as numerous as the stars” (15:5). A new generation was about to begin – and not with just a child. With two children - twins! God was so generous.

Like my friend Elizabeth, married at forty-two, struggling for years with her much older husband to conceive. Then shazam, a son was on the way. She and her husband said, “This is so great. Let’s try again! Time is short.” With a bit of practice, a pregnancy happened again. They were so excited, and she went to the gynecologist and they heard three heartbeats in the womb. Why, God is so generous! Imagine four boys under the age of three, and you’re almost fifty years old. It almost killed her.

Rebekah had twins, and she thought that was bad enough. What do I know? I’m sure it was difficult. She had two little babies tussling around in the same womb. It got so bad she made it a matter of prayer, “O Lord, why am I living?” And God spoke to her – do you know how remarkable that is? God had not spoken directly to a woman since the Garden of Eden (3:16) – but God spoke to Rebekah and gave her a prophetic word:

Two nations are in your womb, said the Lord. Two peoples born of you shall be divided.

That’s a difficult message. There will be conflict between them the second they are born. The generations of one will battle the generations of another. Two brothers, of the same parents, yet they will fight one another for the rest of their lives. My goodness – that family is starting to look like other families we know. It happened between Cain and Abel, it will happen between Jacob and Esau.

It happened between Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior. That was back when I was a brand-new preacher, twenty-six years old. An attorney knocked on my door one afternoon, said “Put on your best business suit and come with me.” We climbed into his Cadillac, and I asked where we were going. “Jim Senior has died,” he said, “and we need to plan his funeral.” I never had an attorney help me plan a funeral.

Well, I think he wanted me there as the referee. Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior sat in opposing corners of the room. The only “funeral” they wanted was a reading of the 23rd Psalm. Three minutes, that was it. The funeral director would pop the urn into a hole in a ground, and then four of them would return to the family homestead for the reading of the will. Please understand: Jim Senior was worth $32 million in 1986, and Marguerite, Mary, Carol, and Jim Junior all wanted their shares. They never talked to one another, but each had a team of attorneys ready to pounce if another got anything more then they felt entitled to receive.

That’s what happens to some families. I hate to say it, but that can happen. People from the same womb can turn on one another. It’s time to meet the family.

And then God says it – not merely that there is a war within the womb, but that

one of the two will be stronger, and the elder will serve the younger. 

That was God’s Holy Word. How would you like that hanging over your head? I don’t know if she ever told her husband Isaac what God said to her. Maybe like Mother Mary she would lock it up in her heart until it was time for Luke to write it don in the Bible. Or maybe she told old Isaac and he never let on. We don’t know. All we have here is God’s pronouncement that the natural order of things will be turned upside down.

The second child will be served by the first. That’s not the way it is supposed to go. Just ask my sister Debbie. She’s the number two child, and I am the first-born. I think she knows intuitively I am more important than she is. For 53 years I have reminded her every opportunity that I have. In high school she would flinch when she went to advanced algebra class and the teacher said, “Oh, you are Bill’s little sister.” I could hear her yowling five miles away. And darn if she didn’t work harder than me, just to get a little better grade than I did.

Did you ever have that kind of competition in your family?

My sister and I went for piano lessons with Mrs. Wilma Black. We had two half-hour lessons back to back. I said, “Debbie, why don’t you go for your lesson first?” She went in, played the Clementi sonatina perfectly, having worked so hard all week just to prove she could do it. Meanwhile, while she was in there, I sat at Mrs. Black’s kitchen table, pantomiming the same piece, trying desperately to make up lost ground because I hadn’t practiced a note all week. That’s why I wanted her to take her lesson first. Later I came out of my lesson having humiliated myself, and, having overheard it, she would preen like a peacock. True story.

If the Bible is God’s revelation to us, how essential that it should speak of sibling rivalry, of child competing against child within the same family. That is real life. And no God worthy of our worship is going to ignore real life. God knows about us and our families, in all of our complexities and competitions.

But here’s the thing some people ask: why isn’t life more fair? Why can’t each one of us get the same identical breaks? Why can’t each one of us be given the same identical abilities? Why can’t we all be the same height, the same width, the same intelligence, the same opinions, the same everything? In fact, why couldn’t you all be left-handed, just like me? But that’s not how God makes us.

Today we meet God’s family. Twin boys are born from the same womb. They have the same father, the same mother, the same God who created each one with equal love, yet they are so different. Esau is red and hairy, Jacob is smooth and slick. Esau is born with a Bowie knife in his teeth, a hunting spear in one hand, and a Cabella’s catalog in the other hand. Little Jacob comes out of the womb, grabbing Esau’s heel and never letting go. That tells you everything, says Genesis.

Their lives will grow and expand. Some growth will be mapped by their DNA – for instance, my nephew Sam is tall just like his father, his sister Grace is pretty just like their mom. Other dimensions of their lives will be shaped by their circumstances: who their parents are, when and where they are born.

A good part of their future will be set in motion by the ways they respond to the opportunities in front of them. Witness Esau returning from the fields, worn out and hungry, while his smooth-skinned, tent-dwelling brother is cooking up a lentil stew. “Give me some of that stew,” bellows the brute. “Only if you grant me all the legal rights that come with being first-born son,” says his twin brother as he shakes in a dash of paprika.

Esau says, “OK, just give me some of that stew. I’m starving over here.” Jacob pulls out a pre-arranged contract and says, “Sign here.” Now you know everything about them.

At first, I thought this was a story about the mystery of preferential treatment, namely, why one brother gets treated better than the other. But the more I reflect upon it, the more I sense the hidden hand of God. When the boys were still in the womb, it was God who announces “the elder will serve the younger,” and that is exactly what comes to pass. God said this to the mother who gave birth to each one just minutes apart. This prediction seems to linger with her for years as she silently decides God’s favorite will be her favorite, too.

Meanwhile father Isaac sits somewhat oblivious on his Lazy Boy recliner, not saying very much. He admires the strength and skill of Big Red Esau – the kind of son he always wanted - but neither Isaac nor Esau show the kind of wisdom, shrewdness, and sheer initiative that the leader of God’s Family is going to need to lead them in their way through the world.

Today, let’s meet the family, Israel’s founding family, the family into which we have been adopted through Jesus Christ. We will be with them for another month or so. This summer, my hope is that, as Jacob and Esau’s stories unfold, we will see ourselves in God’s unfolding story. We can - and should - read the Bible and look for God. But do you know how we know this book is God’s Word? It is when we read the Bible and discover that  God is reading us.

Today the message is simply that God knows who we are, in the complexity and curiosity of our human families. And in the greatest mystery of all, God works through all of that - and all of us - to accomplish his will. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.