July 27, 2014
In her comments on the story of Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel, Kathryn Schifferdecker who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says, “The swapping of brides on a wedding night (not to mention the fact that Jacob doesn't notice the switch until morning) would seem to be strange fodder for a sermon.”
When I started preaching with you, I said that we’d use the lectionary selections, albeit flexibly, to listen for a word from God for us. I must admit that though the story is familiar, hearing something I could understand as a word from God was harder than usual. I encourage you listen for God yourself and not take my words as God’s.
Two weeks ago as we watched the struggle between Esau and Jacob, we saw how God’s gracious, sovereign will was accomplished through the free will of flawed people. This week we see that God didn’t leave Jacob stranded with his flaws but was remaking him to be a suitable bearer of the Abrahamic covenant to bless all people.
As I have tried to live into this story of the polygamous marriages of Jacob, Leah and Rachel – looking ahead to adding their maids to this convoluted story – the word I am getting is that God’s gracious, unconditional love accepts us as we are and persistently prods us to grow up into Christ.
When Rebekah learned that Esau was planning to kill Jacob after Isaac died, she prepared to send him to her brother Laban for his safety. (Genesis 27:43) Independently, Isaac sent Jacob to his uncle Laban with specific instructions to marry one of his daughters. (Genesis 28:2) When Jacob met Rachel at the well, he responded with emotional tears and kisses (Genesis 29:11) I wonder if it was the same well where Eliezer found Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. The text doesn’t say this, but I imagine him thinking, “Wow! She’s beautiful. Having her for a wife would be just great!” She seems to have responded positively too by running to tell her father. (Genesis 29:12) Laban ran to embrace and kiss Jacob. (Genesis 29:13) They seemed to be off to a great start for everyone.
But, yes, but! The sibling rivalry and family favoritism that fueled the disruptions in Jacob’s family in Canaan followed him to Haran and Laban’s family. This is a classic example of a basic principle of pastoral counseling. You cannot run away from your problems by changing locations (or spouses, or neighborhoods, or jobs). You carry them with you. Or as Cassius says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
What we read today is just the beginning of a story that would do the consummate soap opera writer proud. Jacob discovered that his uncle and father-in-law was a bigger cheat, sneak, swindler than he was. What seemed to be a good faith offer of fair pay for work seems to have been a scheme to marry off the less appealing daughter. He treated both Leah and Rachel as commodities, not at all the way the family treated Rebekah when she agreed to become Isaac’s wife. Seemingly to compensate for not being loved, God gave Leah children while Rachel remained childless for a long time. Starting with Rachel, the two sisters enlisted their maids to engage in a baby making contest and barter for Jacob’s attention with vegetables with legendary fertility qualities. As Laban’s flocks grew under Jacob’s care, Jacob began to build his own flocks, which were grazed a distance from each other. Though Laban kept changing the terms, with God’s blessing and apparent selective breeding, Jacob’s flocks became stronger and stronger, out-stripping Laban’s. Animosity and the call of God propelled Jacob to take his now large family and flocks back to Canaan. For whatever reason, Rachel stole her father’s family idols, which only added to the tension between Laban and Jacob. So they made a covenant to stay away from each other. On the journey to Canaan, God’s angels again met Jacob, and he called the place “God’s Camp.” Jacob was reminded of being encountered by God at Bethel, that we looked at last week, and assured that God had been with him during the difficult years in Haran, remaking him into a suitable leader to carry on the covenant with Abraham. And affirming that God would continue to be with him.
Laban was God’s mirror held up to Jacob so he could take an honest look at himself. Unlike the wicked queen in Snow White, who tried to kill the “fairest of them all” when the mirror answered honestly, Jacob was reshaped bit by bit as Laban banged up against his rough edges. James 1:23-24 also used the mirror as a motif for the Word of God that shows us as we are. We can choose to walk away and forget what we’ve seen or make amends when God’s gracious, unconditional love accepts us as we are and persistently prods us to grow up into Christ.
Have you ever recognized yourself in something that annoys you about someone else? I know I have. The story of Jacob and Laban tells us that this can be God’s way of getting us to grow up into Christ by taking an honest look at ourselves.
In the physical realm, coaches and trainers remind athletes that “no pain – no gain.” Similarly, while God’s unconditional love accepts us with all of our flaws, to leave us stuck with our shortcomings would not be love but cruelty. So even though an honest look in God’s spiritual mirror can be painful, it is lovingly intended to stimulate our growth to become more like Jesus.
The New Testament frequently speaks of growing up into Christ. I’ve posted several passages on the church’s Facebook page, on my blog and on Twitter at #FCCSUNDAY for you to explore that further. And I am intrigued at the three times the New Testament uses the image of milk as an encouragement for spiritual growth.
- 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready.”
- Hebrews 5:12-14 “You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”
- 1 Peter 2:2 “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation.”
Since God’s gracious, unconditional love accepts us as we are and persistently prods us to grow up into Christ, none of us can use “that’s just the way I am” as an excuse for not growing toward Christ.
As I have reflected on this story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, I have sensed God asking me to identify my growing edges where God is currently working to remake me. That exploration filled about 8 pages of my personal spiritual journal. I ask you the same question. What are your growing edges where God is remaking you?
Laban was God’s tool for remaking Jacob. Who are the annoying people in your life whom God may be using to remake you as they bang up against your rough edges? They don’t have to be people you necessarily think of as good spiritual examples. Laban certainly wasn’t. But with the right attitude, you can thank God for the gift of using them to help you grow up into Christ.
I know very well that the interim journey can be an uncomfortable, difficult time not just for the church as a community of faith, but for individuals as well. Uncertainty and competing and even conflicting hopes for the church's future can either push us to resist or open us up to God’s reconstruction in our lives. For this church, improvised summer worship adds to the discomfort. After the Praise Medley drawn from the first service, the rest of the service follows the plan of the second service. But the fit isn’t always smooth. We’re tweaking it every week to try to make it work as well as possible. Before long, we’ll be back to the regular schedule. Worshiping in a place and at a time we're not used to also keeps us off balance. The renovations in Fellowship Hall bring both anticipation and anxiety. I suggest the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel encourages us to ask how God is using our discomforts to help up grow up into Christ.We all need an honest spiritual mirror so God can remake us. The pastor of the church I served in New Jersey preached about the dangers of “hidden faults” and quoted Psalm 19:12. “Who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.” After the sermon, one of the Elders said to the pastor, “I don’t think I have any hidden faults. I think I know all the faults I’ve got.” To which the pastor responded, “The problem with hidden faults is that they are hidden.” Just as Laban was God’s mirror to help Jacob recognize and amend his faults, God sends us people, circumstances, and yes Scripture, as spiritual mirrors to prod us to grow up into Christ.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
1 Corinthians 3:1
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.
make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
1 Peter 2:2
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—
2 Peter 3:18But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.