Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Clinging to God

Genesis 25:19-34, 28:10-22, and 32:22-32

 Before we get started with Jacob and Esau, let’s have a little pity party for Isaac.  Why?  Because he gets short-changed.  His father Abraham gets about a dozen chapters of Genesis where he is the main character.  Isaac’s son Jacob gets about 20 chapters, where he is the main character.  And in between is poor Isaac.  He’s born.  He is almost sacrificed by Abraham, until God steps in.  He gets married.  He has twin sons.  And then, that’s about it for him. Other than getting tricked by Jacob!  Jacob then becomes the central character of the second half of Genesis.  I don’t know why poor Isaac hardly gets mentioned.  So we’ll pity him and move on.

 Jacob’s story begins with his birth and that of his older twin brother Esau.  Probably like all siblings that are close to each other in age, there is a struggle for supremacy.  It happens even before they’re born.  Rebekah asks God, “What’s going on here?”  And God tells her that her sons will be rivals, but the younger will prevail.  

 Why does God “favor” the younger son?  Perhaps because God often chooses the “weak” things of this world over the “strong,” to show his power at work.  But I think it’s also because Jacob favors God and Esau favors the things of the world.

 The name Jacob derives from the Hebrew, “To grasp the heel,” which was a way of saying, “To deceive.”  And Jacob certainly was a deceiver.  An appropriate name for a man who led a life of deception that led to conflict and in several occasions, the need to flee.  The favoritism of Jacob and Esau’s parents did not help the matter at all.  Rebekah favored Jacob and helped him to deceive Isaac.

 But before we dive into Jacob’s story, let’s look for a moment at his older brother Esau.  I think there was a reason that Esau was not the “son of the Promise.”  Esau looks like the prototype for a person who does not see the value of things.  We know him best for selling his birthright for a bowl of soup.  His birthright, as the first-born son would be to receive a double portion of the family inheritance.  Since there were two sons, he would have received two-thirds of the inheritance.  

 But he sold it for a bowl of soup.  He even found a way to rationalize it:  “I’m dying of hunger, so why not?  If I don’t sell this birthright, I’ll soon be dead!”  Really?  

 But how often are we like Esau?  How often do we see the things we want, and forget the value of everything else?  We lose perspective in the heat of the moment. 

We see that toy we want, and we forget the cost to our finances and our family in the heat of the moment.  I’ve been guilty of that from time to time.  And when we get what we want, we feel satisfied, maybe even powerful.  But that feeling doesn’t last.  We exchange short-term gain for long-term loss.  

 Somebody once told me something very wise:  Important things are seldom urgent, and urgent things are seldom important.  A ringing phone may be urgent, but it’s usually not important.  Our families are important.  But they’re seldom urgent.  It’s easy to push them onto the back burner, and just keep them there, until one day we wake up and realize we no longer have the relationship with them that we’d like to. 

 I believe the most important thing of all is our relationship with God.  But it’s seldom urgent.  It’s seldom urgent to pray.  It’s seldom urgent to pick up the Bible and read it.  Its’ seldom urgent to go to worship or Bible study or Sunday School.  We can put those things off for days, weeks, years.  But when the crisis strikes, when a loved one dies, when an accident or illness hits us or someone we care about:  Do we then have the relationship with God that will bring us through it?  Or did we put it off because it wasn’t urgent?  

 Esau saw what he wanted and took it without thought; whether it was a foreign wife his parents didn’t approve of or just a bowl of soup.

 Jacob could see the value of things.  He knew what was important.  But he was certainly not a model of virtue.  Not content with Esau’s birthright, he also conspired with his mother to deceive his own poor, blind father and steal the blessing for the firstborn.  If the birthright represented material blessings, then the blessing of his father was the spiritual blessing reserved for the first-born.  It was the promise of God.  

 Now Jacob had everything.  But Esau wasn’t very happy.  He decided to murder Jacob as soon as Isaac passed away.  Fortunately for Jacob, mom caught wind of the plan and got Jacob sent out of Dodge until big brother calmed down.  Jacob was sent away with nothing but a walking stick to go back to Haran to find a wife among his own clan.  That was a common practice in the ancient Near East, called endogamy, to marry within one’s own extended family. 

 Along the way, Jacob meets God.  At the moment of his greatest need, he found God.  He is alone.  He is running for his life.  And he meets God.  

 We call his encounter at Bethel “Jacob’s Ladder.”  Well, it probably wasn’t a ladder that he saw in his vision.  Maybe not even a staircase as we think of it.  The people of the ancient Near East believed that there were “sacred places” where one could find a “portal” between realms, a door from heaven to earth.  In Babylon, they build ziggurats, towers with a winding spiral staircase on the outside, as portals or doors for the gods to come down to them.  That was probably more the idea.  In his vision, Jacob sees God at the top of this spiral staircase, with angels ascending and descending as they go hither and yon at the bidding of God.  

 The covenant becomes personal for Jacob.  No longer is God simply the God of his father and his grandfather, now God is his God.  God promises to provide for Jacob:  Inheritance, descendants, protection, provision, and through him, a blessing for all the earth.  

 Jacob wakes up and says, “God is here, and I didn’t even know it.”  Many ancient people had a “localized” understanding of the gods.  They thought gods lived in certain places, and couldn’t leave them.  Maybe that was Jacob’s thinking.  This is where God lives.  

 Jacob says to God, if you will do this, if you will provide for me, then I will make you my God.  It is the defining moment of Jacob’s life; the moment when God claims him, and he claims God.  

 And he’s going to need it, because now the deceiver becomes the deceived.  Jacob arrives in Haran, finds his uncle Laban, takes a fancy to Laban’s daughter Rachel, and makes a deal to earn her hand in marriage for just seven years of labor.  And then he wakes up the next day, and there’s Rachel’s sister Leah.  Oh.  Well, another seven years and he finally gets the girl of his dreams.  It only took him 14 years.  

 Time to go home?  He probably thought so, but Laban insisted he stay and keep working for him.  So Jacob stays, and Laban keeps changing the deal on him.  Well, in the end, God continues to bless and provide for Jacob, so he stays until God tells him to leave Haran and go back to Canaan.  He’s listening to God now!  That’s progress!

 Of course, he’s a little worried about what Laban will think, so he doesn’t bother telling him he’s leaving.  He just picks up and goes, in a hurry.  He’s running again.  And sure enough, Laban takes off after him, but with a three day head start, Jacob makes it all the way back to Gilead, just across the Jordan River to the east of Canaan before

Laban catches up.  By then, Laban doesn’t have much choice.  He’s a few hundred miles from home.  He can hardly force Jacob to do anything.  So he makes peace and leaves.

 But there’s still the matter of Esau, his bigger, stronger, older brother.  And when Esau finds out that Jacob is coming, he goes out to meet him, with 400 armed men.  And Jacob is scared.

 He tries to protect himself.  He sends gifts to his brother, perhaps to calm his anger.  He splits his family into two groups, figuring that maybe Esau will find one of them, and kill them, but maybe he’ll still have half his family.  And of course, Jacob does the best thing of all:  He prays.  He pleads with God to protect him and his family, remembering God’s promise of protection.

 That night, he camps at the ford of the Jabbok River.  Fords were important places.  They were gateways; places that you could protect territory by preventing your enemy from crossing the river.  

 In the middle of the night, Jacob sends his family across the river, but he stays behind alone.  And there he meets the protector of the Promised Land as an angel of the Lord comes and wrestles with him all through the night.  Many Bible scholars wonder if this angel might be an appearance of Jesus in the Old Testament.  

 At that place called Peniel, Jacob is made to see his weakness before God.  He cannot overcome God.  But in his weakness, he clings to God.  He clings to God persistently asking to be blessed by God.  

 God changes his name to Israel, the one who wrestles with God, or possibly, the one for whom God wrestles.  By changing his name, God is laying claim to Jacob.  In his moment of need, Jacob clung to God, and God blessed him for it.  

 By the end of his life, Jacob had become the kind of person who wouldn’t do anything without first seeking God’s will.  He comes down to us as a model of faith.  Not because he was perfect.  He had some serious character flaws.  But he also had a persistent desire for the things that matter most:  The promises and blessings and presence of God.  In spite of his deceitfulness and all the conflict in his life, he clung to God, and God changed him.

 Cling to God, no matter what, and he will change you too.

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