A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho July 24, 2011
When I read this story, I feel like I’ve just read someone’s diary and exposed the hidden secrets of a family. It just doesn’t seem right. Surely Rachel and Leah deserve some privacy so that they can deal with the consequences of their father’s shady business practices without witnesses? How humiliating it must have been for both of them.
Presumably, Rachel had been preparing to be a bride as she’d watched Jacob work those 7 years to earn her hand, perhaps even reminding Leah that nobody had come forward to marry her.
And even if Leah had a momentary victory at the last minute switch on the wedding night, surely there was humiliation for her too the morning after, when Jacob ran from the tent, outraged at the deception. Had she perhaps hoped that in one night together, he would have reconsidered and changed his mind?
Even Jacob, the trickster who had lied and fooled his father, claiming his older brother Esau’s birthright—even Jacob might not want this story read in every pulpit in the land. Because here, the trickster meets his match.
Jacob worked 7 years for Rachel and then discovered in the morning that he had married Leah. Yet, when Jacob complains about the wife swap, Laban said, “this is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn”. Can’t you just hear the rest of the sentence? “You thought you were so clever fooling your father for your brother’s inheritance with just a pot of beans and the hair of a goat wrapped around your hand, but I just showed you how it’s done! You didn’t even know you’d married the wrong daughter until the morning! We do things the right way around here! Oldest wins.”
Yes, you can see why Jacob probably wasn’t thrilled when these pictures were put in the family album.
But here they are.
Why is that?
Genesis, which tells the stories of our ancestors, from the creation of the world to the foundation of the Hebrew people, is full of these stories.
From Adam, Eve, and the talking serpent at the beginning, all the way through the dysfunction of Jacob’s sons at the end, Genesis is full of family stories that we might like to shove under the proverbial rug.
Do any of you face that in your own families? My grandparents all died when I was a child, and so I remember my grandparents as saints. But then my dad will tell me a story about his childhood and I catch myself wondering “where were grandma and grandpa while this was happening?” And then I realize, “ohhh…that was grandpa who ….” Apparently there was another side of my grandparents than I experienced myself.
But we want to tell the heroic stories of our ancestors. We highlight the ancestor who invented barbed wire and forget to mention the one whose drinking caused the loss of the family business.
We tell the stories we think others want to hear, dressing ourselves, and our families, up as people who have it all together, hoping that people won’t see the pain and brokenness that is just under the surface.
Thankfully, the author of Genesis doesn’t whitewash the story of Israel. We don’t only get the story of Jacob’s hard work and creativity. We also get the story of heartbreak, deception, family dysfunction, and intrigue.
And God is working right through the midst of it.
From Leah’s tears that come from being the unwanted wife, the first of the tribes of Israel will be born—sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and daughter Dina. Her delight and joy will come despite the circumstances around her marriage.
And Rachel, too, is a part of God’s story, waiting those years to be married to Jacob, enduring years of infertility, and giving birth to Joseph and Benjamin.
Of course, we know that childbearing is not the only way women participate in God’s story, but the book of Genesis doesn’t tell us of those experiences.
And Jacob lives into his role as patriarch, claiming the birthright, working for his uncle, creating a family, becoming Israel, carrying the story forward where we meet up with it. God creates the people of God from this most human and flawed man.
We know this to be true—that God works through highly flawed people and families. We have it in Scripture, even. And yet, we continue to argue that only perfect people should lead us. Or we say that God doesn’t need this person or that person to serve the church because we have decided that they sin more than the rest of us. Or we decide we will go back to church once we’ve gotten things figured out.
But if God seems perfectly content to work through people like Jacob and Laban, why do we pretend we’re not?
What grace do we need to accept in our lives so that we can offer our true selves as God’s servants? What do we need to do so that we can then share that grace with others?
Think about it. If Jacob showed up today and wanted to pastor our church, what would we say? Setting aside the 2 wives and the children he had with the slaves of his two wives. I can imagine the conversation.
“Well, he did cheat his brother out of his inheritance.”
“Yes, and to do that he lied to his father and then took the first train out of town.”
There is often dissonance at work in our faith life. We claim that we’ve accepted God’s grace, offered through Jesus Christ. But then we act as if only perfect people, seemingly not in need of grace, need apply.
We need to let that go. We need to come to church as our whole selves. Broken. Sometimes deceitful. Manipulative and tricky. Heartbroken. Infertile.
And we need to be clear that we welcome real people in our doors. If God’s own story is told through the lives of Jacob, Laban, Leah, and Rachel, then surely we need our churches to be places where those people would be welcome to worship.
None of our stories– our beautiful, heartbreaking, and complicated stories—is beyond the presence or the ability of God to redeem. So bring yourself and your story here to this place, where, together, we can seek where God is moving amongst us.
The apostle Paul also knew what it was to serve God from a place of brokenness. He was the least likely candidate to evangelize the world. He persecuted Christians. He was also short and not very charismatic. Yet God chose him. And in his flawed humanity, Paul responded to God’s call and then wrote these words, now found in the 8th chapter of the Letter to the church in Rome:
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul reminds us that all of our story is within the care of God. Even the parts, especially the parts, of the story we don’t want to write about in our Christmas letters.
And so we come here as ourselves. Our true selves.
When I look back on the first 40 years of my story, and I think about what made me who I am today, I realize that it was the moments I wouldn’t have chosen
—the big, painful mistakes;
—the times of hurt and loss;
—the moments of doubt and despair;
those were the moments that helped me become the person I am, the person I seek to be, today. I am thankful for each of those moments and for God’s presence in the midst of them, turning my pain into something new and beautiful.
And so we should be thankful that our stories are more like Jacob, Leah and Rachel’s and less like a Norman Rockwell painting. Because I bet that pretty Rachel learned compassion for her sister and others the world deems unwanted. I bet Leah, with her many children, felt compassion for her infertile sister. I bet Jacob had compassion for the brother he had tricked after he, himself, became the victim. Surely, they became better people for the difficulties they endured.
Friends, the story of the people of God is filled with people like you and me—Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Laban, and Paul. And thank God for that. If God can work through them, God will surely work through us. If God can redeem their story, God can surely turn our broken stories into lives of beauty, truth, and love. Let us truly live into the grace we have received so that we may live lives of truth and so the world may know of God’s love in the midst of their own pain.