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Straightening Out a Crooked Life

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A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City,  Mo., on July 24, 2011.

Genesis 29:15-28

History may give credit to P.T. Barnum for saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but most of his friends denied he ever said it. Here’s something he did say about the great masses who came to see his circus shows: “People like to be humbugged when, as in my case, there’s no humbuggery except that which consists in throwing up sky-rockets and issuing flaming bills and advertisements to attract public attention to shows which all acknowledge are always clean, moral, instructive, elevating, and give back to their patrons in every case several times their money’s worth.”[1] In my mind, the questionable version at least gets style points for being more honest.

We’ve walked with Jacob these past few weeks and so far he’s had the look of a trickster. Now the tables have been turned giving him now the feel of a sucker in this story. There’s good news in all this that the first half of our lives do not always condemn our outcome if we gain wisdom and realize God is doing something larger than anything we can imagine. It gives us a sense of hope, don’t you think?

I

Bill Moyers claims this story reads more like a Greek tragedy or a television soap opera[2] because this is a story about the trickster finally meeting his match! “What goes around comes around,” we say with a knowing wink. Imagine a deal is struck and seven years of work are patiently offered in good faith; then imagine Jacob’s embarrassment in waking up from a long night’s wedding celebration and his honeymoon night with his new bride, only to wake up to discover he had slept with Rachel’s older sister and she was his wife, not Rachel! Hard to believe? You’ve seen those Middle Eastern veils … the Bible does tell us Leah’s one beauty was her eyes. Uncle Laban gave Jacob the trickster (his future son-in-law) a healthy dose of Middle Eastern “bait and switch” at the altar. It was one old trickster playing the younger.

Maybe by citing Leah’s one beautiful trait was the Bible round about way of suggesting she was plain or simply ordinary in contrast to her sister’s striking beauty. When I was in Lebanon a few years ago, a Lebanese man told me proudly, “The most beautiful women in the world are Lebanese.” Admittedly, Middle Eastern women are beautiful and the veil would aptly showcase the beauty of the eyes.

We’re never told what Leah’s inner thoughts might have been over Jacob’s favoritism toward Rachel’s greater feminine beauty. But it’s obvious the focus of the story highlights Jacob’s thinking that the rule of the first-borns didn’t always apply. By living the trickster life, walking in life as though he could walk between the raindrops, his needs were simple. He wanted nothing more than to marry Rachel, the love of his life. It’s a complicated, ironic story driven by the rule of the first-borns.

Jacob was the product of his upbringing. He learned the rules well and was a master of deceit. He was a trickster and wasn’t afraid to ignore what was right to bend the rules in his favor. Jacob had learned the lifestyle of lies and deceit from his dear mother. She wanted him to be the one who would carry the name and blessing of God into the future. So she conspired with her fair-haired boy how he could trick both his older, dim-witted brother and his dim-sighted father out of what should have been Esau’s birthright.

While Rebekah loved and preferred Jacob, Isaac’s favorite was Esau, the rightful heir. The Bible speaks plainly of the parents’ preference of one son over the other, “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28, NRSV). Scripted into their childhood was the parental battle over which of the sons would be the best and the brightest and who would receive the favored blessing of God.

II

Already we see the signs that Jacob was changing … he was now a man trying to escape his past trying to change his way of life. Jacob had always been the fast-thinking one who could turn things in his favor. But he was growing up and something in him had shifted. After his deception of Esau, an event that caused him to flee for his life, Jacob had stopped long enough to sleep and in last week’s sermon, we heard about the vision God gave him in a dream while he slept. In truth, God was at work in him and he knew he had to change. The dream triggered a new awareness of his destiny and now he was trying to live up to the claim God’s blessing had placed upon him as the one through whom God would bless the world. It was the willingness of receiving the mantle of God’s blessing that where there is great blessing, there is great responsibility.

A lifelong con has a hard time changing old habits. Despite the revelation he received in the dream that Kate shared last week, Jacob wasn’t fully reformed. But in this stage of his journey, the young con met up with an older craftier con. The trap was soon set and Laban set in motion fourteen years of Jacob’s committed labor in order to marry Rachel, Jacob’s true love.

But all of us know there is a terrible price to be paid when one wants to reform his or her life. What Jacob demonstrated in all this was his willingness to make an intentional break with his past. Once a con, now Jacob was doing the hard work of letting go of all that he had known as a young man. After being humbled by his uncle’s trick to save his oldest daughter’s pride, he submitted himself to his conniving uncle, and labored for another seven years; Jacob demonstrated how utterly serious he was as he suffered his pain quietly and went back to work so Rachel, his beloved, could be his.

What was happening was he was trying to outgrow the manipulative young man he had been in order to grow fully into his manhood. It’s this story that illuminates the stories we’ve considered to this point. We’ve been hard on Jacob the last few weeks. It’s this story that sheds light on the larger story of Jacob’s life. But Jacob was now changing and trying to become a man of substance.

III

In the harsh lessons of life, Jacob was learning that God’s grace was something he couldn’t manipulate or control. It was something that came to him freely like the air that he breathed. He pulled no strings to get it. God gave it freely to him like the dream itself. What Jacob was discovering was that God was at work trying to bless him into goodness.

C.S. Lewis, in his last published book, The Four Loves, distinguishes between “need love” and “gift love.” “Need-love” is born of emptiness and is always trying to suck substitutes in to fill that which is missing. “Gift love” is born of abundance and is like an artisan well, the more you draw from it, the more it has to give. The story of Jacob is the story of one man trying to make the shift from one kind of love to another.[3]

The trickster had pulled his last trick and God was penetrating all his defenses. What Jacob was learning was that God didn’t need him to manipulate the world so that God might bless the world. In fact, all those tricks, all the lying and cheating and deceitfulness were hindrances that God had to overcome before God could use Jacob to bless the world.

Many things are worth waiting for. What he learned from the commitment of loving Rachel was that the best things in life come when one gave the deepest part of our soul to get it. Harvard Professor Gordon Allport, eminent psychologist of the middle of the twentieth century, claimed in lectures delivered at Yale:  “The possession of long-range goals, regarded as central to one’s personal existence, distinguishes the human being from the animal, the adult from the child, and in many cases the healthy personality from the sick.”[4]

In spite of all his faults, Jacob was admirable when it came to understanding gift love. He then knew what he wanted in life. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.”

What he learned from the commitment of loving Rachel was that the best things in life come when one gives the deepest part of their soul to get it. One of the readings from Matthew for this day includes the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price. They’re two Jesus stories that are helpful in understanding Jacob and the transformation that he’s trying to complete.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his great joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it”  (Matthew 13:44-45, NRSV).

Jacob came to the end of his devices and all that was left was the one thing he couldn’t gain by manipulation. Funny how when God finally gets our attention and we realize God is trying to do great and wonderful things through us and wants to bless all of creation with our existence in the world. What we discover is that God is not interested in our abilities to manipulate the world. What we discover is that God wants to radically transform us from the inside out, making us more like God than the world.

When you get your eye on that one great prize that you’ve discovered and you’re willing to pay anything for it, God is ready to bless you beyond your wildest ideas.

©         Dr. Keith D. Herron, 2011

[1] From The Bridgeport Standard, October 2, 1885

[2] Bill Moyers, Genesis, A Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday, 1996, 249

[3] From “A Conversation with John Claypool,” Baptists Today, March 2002

[4] Bruce Prewer, “This Beats Mills and Boon,” http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/46SUN17.htm