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July 27, 2014
You know, I don’t preach very often, but today’s lectionary Scripture is the second drunken wedding feast passage that’s come my way in the UPC preaching schedule. I have previously preached on John’s account of Jesus turning massive amounts of water into excellent wine at a wedding feast in Cana. While that text doesn’t record any unfortunate consequences of excessive drinking, today’s text of Jacob’s wedding – in fact the entire story of Jacob’s life – drips with consequences, and it’s easy to read his story as a cautionary tale of human behavior at its most deceptive, least ethical worst. But it’s also possible to read Jacob’s story as a witness to the presence and movement in his life of a God who sees further and more clearly than Jacob does, a God who brings Jacob into the broad landscape of covenantal promise even through human deception and disappointment.
To review the events that get us to this point in the story:
- Jacob has come to Laban, his mother’s brother, seeking refuge after:
- Manipulating his impulsive, impatient brother Esau into giving away his rights of inheritance as the first-born
- Deceiving his aging, blind father Isaac into bestowing upon Jacob the blessing that should have been Esau’s.
Jacob and his mother Rebekah – his partner and tutor in deception – deem it wise for Jacob to avoid his angry father and betrayed brother, so Rebekah sends Jacob to her brother, thinking, no doubt, that he will be safe and honored among this extended family. And for a long time, things go well. Jacob and Laban enter into an agreement that benefits each of them: Laban gets seven years of Jacob’s manual and mental effort as bride-price for Laban’s beautiful younger daughter Rachel. And those seven years, which sound like an awfully long time to instant gratification Americans and which in fact are one year longer than a standard term of Hebrew slavery, those seven years seem but an instant to the besotted Jacob for he is working toward a clear and desirable and much-anticipated reward – marriage to the woman he has loved since first seeing her at her family’s well.
Sisters – we will not speak today of the fact that Rachel and Leah, principal players in this story, have no say in their fates – neither of them utters a word in these verses. Brothers, we will not be drawn into gender politics to speak of these women’s household status as chattel to be traded. We will leave untouched Laban’s final offer to Jacob: “finish the honeymoon week with this one and we will give you the other also”, denying his daughters even the dignity of their names. We speak today not of how this story fails and diminishes us, but of how the story of God’s people always points to a God who fulfills the covenantal promise. Even within Laban’s narrow self-serving patriarchal world-view and Jacob’s narrow self-serving infatuated marital desires, God acts to bring wider blessing than either of them has imagined.
And so the wedding feast. Seven years have passed since Jacob’s arrival in Laban’s household. The bride-price is paid. Jacob tells Laban it’s time to settle up. Big wedding celebration, many guests, much drinking, a wedding night.
The next morning, Jacob wakes to the wrong woman in his bed. He’s been holding onto the promise of marital joy for so long. How can his life have gone so horribly wrong? Jacob didn’t work seven years for Leah. He confronts Laban: “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work all this time for the hand of Rachel? Why did you cheat me?”
One summer night when I was 6, as my mother tucked me into bed she asked, “How would you like a little brother or a little sister?” No hesitation on my part: “I’d like a little sister, please.” I had two brothers already and there was nothing wrong with them, but two was plenty, and a sister sounded like the greatest idea ever.
Having settled the matter, I spent the next months in happy anticipation. When it was my turn at Show and Tell in my 2nd grade classroom, I told my classmates – again and again – that I was getting a baby sister for Christmas.
You can probably see where this is headed. When my father called from the hospital to say my third brother had been born, I again responded without hesitation. “Tell her not to bring it home.” If I’d been familiar with the story of Jacob, I might have said, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I plan and prepare and hope all this time for a sister? Why did you cheat me?”
It is our human tendency to approach promise with a deep self-interest, a fervent conviction that what would be best / most pleasant / most beneficial for me is what should happen.
The problem isn’t that we’re self-interested –after all, our survival depends on our attention to our needs. The problem is that our self-interest is so small. Narrow, stunted, blind to the extravagant abundance and expansive blessing into which God invites us. When we operate solely out of small, stingy self-interest, we cheat everyone, including ourselves. God intends much more for us and calls us to broaden our vision. Joan Gray, a former moderator of the PC(USA) speaks of “sanctified imagination”, the practice of allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us to see beyond what is to what could be. Jacob and Laban demonstrate a failure of sanctified imagination, for they persist in operating out of selfish ambition and deceptive manipulation. They think and act within narrow self-interest, each striving for advantage over the other.
Laban wants Jacob’s service. Jacob is a strong and clever young man, a real asset to a large, complicated household. And Laban wants to marry off his daughters. In Jacob he sees a chance to gain a son-in-law from the wealthy, powerful family into which his sister Rebekah has married. And by tricking Jacob into marrying both Leah and Rachel, Laban saves himself the trouble of having to find and negotiate with separate suitors.
Jacob heads to Laban’s land seeking safety from his furious brother. He has struggled and connived to usurp Esau’s position as patriarch. But, having gotten both birthright and blessing, he doesn’t fulfill the responsibilities of leadership; he runs away and falls in love in a distant land. In order to win Rachel’s hand, Jacob commits to seven years of service in Laban’s household. What is happening to his own household – the lands, flocks and people he has left behind? Isaac is old, blind and feeble even before Jacob flees. Esau is disenfranchised. Who manages the family’s affairs while Jacob dallies in Haran waiting for his wedding day? But Jacob focused on his desire for Rachel, neglects the promises God has made to Abraham — promises of blessing to be carried through this family to the world, promises Jacob has claimed by making himself Isaac’s heir.
Even within the narrow self-interest which motivates both Laban and Jacob, God works to fulfill God’s purpose. As one biblical scholar says of Jacob’s dual weddings, “The tale of Leah and Rachel continues the ancestral narrative’s theme of God’s promise of posterity to Abraham. In spite of all the obstacles created by misdeed or circumstance … the divine response will sustain life into the next generation.” It is through the problematic marriages we’ve read about today that the foundational story of our faith expands from the family of Abraham to the people of Israel. With his two wives and their 2 handmaids, Jacob fathers the twelve tribes which will become the nation promised by God to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, a nation chosen to work God’s purpose of blessing for all nations. God moves Jacob – despite Jacob’s inclinations and protestations – beyond narrow self-interest into a broader place.
We, like Laban and Jacob, too often act and re-act out of narrow self-interest.
I wanted a baby sister as the final member of my mental image of a perfectly balanced family – mother, father, 2 little boys, 2 little girls, 1 dog, 1 cat. When my new sibling was Mark Oliver rather than Amanda Susan, my rigid mental image collapsed around my feed and had to be discarded. It took me a while – in my defense, I was only 7 at the time – but eventually I swept aside the debris of disappointment and allowed myself to admit – and appreciate – that even a family with three brothers and no sisters has its charms.
And beyond that – I live within a family of faith rich with sisters and brothers – a family grander, more loving and more interesting than I could ever have designed. God heard me say, “I’d like a sister, please” and has brought so many, many sisters into my life and into my heart. God heard me admit that brothers were good too, and has gifted me with a multitude.
Are there narrow hopes standing between you and God’s abundant blessing? Areas in your life where sanctified imagination might carry you to a broad place? We work so hard to build our cozy corners with only enough room for our small dreams and our tiny ideas, and just as we settle in, God nudges or cajoles or shoves us out, saying, “What are you doing tucked away in there? Come out here where there’s plenty of space. I’ve got bigger plans than this for you.”
The psalmist sings praise to God with these words, “You brought me forth to a broad place; you delivered me because you love me.” God loved Jacob, preserved and protected him even in the midst of trickery and disappointment, and through Jacob and his wives built a nation to bless the world.
God loves each of us and will deliver us from narrow self-interest and stunted hopes into a broad place of promise and blessing. May we accept that deliverance with gratitude and live into it with joy.