“Analyze This!” – Genesis 27-28
Pentecost 9 – August 6, 2017
Introduction: A Perfect Family?
In the 1950’s, this is what the perfect family looked like: a working, well-dressed dad, who comes home for dinner with his family every night; a stay-at-home mom who cooks pot roast and potatoes and gravy for her family and serves them on fine dishes on a table cloth; two well-behaved children, one a boy, one a girl, who smile all the time and who don’t get in trouble at home or at school. We all still have families like that, don’t we?
No, we don’t! By 1980 the ordinary family didn’t look so perfect anymore. The 1980 Academy Award winning best picture, Ordinary People, told the story of an upper-middle class family in suburban Chicago that was trying to return to normal life after the boating death of one teenaged son and the attempted suicide of the surviving son. Buck was the son that everyone idolized, but Conrad somehow felt responsible for his death. He begins seeing a psychiatrist after a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. Calvin, the husband and father, tries to connect with his surviving son, and to understand his wife, Beth. She denies her loss and is trying to restore her family to its former perfection and normalcy. But because of the suicide attempt, she ends up being cold and unaffectionate toward Conrad, and mother and son often argue. In one of those heated arguments, Conrad points out that Beth never visited him in the hospital, saying that she “would have come if Buck was in the hospital.” Beth replies, “Buck never would have been in the hospital!” When husband, Calvin, questions their love for each other and asks whether Beth is capable of truly loving anyone, she decides to flee her family rather than deal with her own emotions. Calvin and Conrad are left to come to terms with their new family situation. If you were a psychiatrist, how would you analyze that “ordinary” family?
- A not-so-perfect Family
a. Isaac’s twins
The Bible family for our consideration today is not so different – much more dysfunctional than perfect. What we have is a permissive father, a controlling mother, an errant older son, and a deceptive younger son. It sounds like reality TV, but it’s the story of Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob. Isaac was Abraham’s promised son, and when Abraham was getting old, really old, he made his servant promise to get a wife for Isaac not from the Canaanites where Abraham had settled, but from Abraham’s extended family back in Mesopotamia. Isaac married Rebekah, but like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebekah wasn’t having any children. Isaac wholeheartedly prayed to God, and Rebekah conceived. When she questioned the active movement in her womb, the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb… the older shall serve the younger.” When the twins were born, Esau’s body was hairy and red, and Jacob came out holding Esau’s heel. Esau grew up to be a skillful hunter and outdoorsman, while Jacob was more quiet and introspective, dwelling in tents. Then things get… well, intense.
b. A sold birthright, a cheated blessing
One day, when Esau was exhausted from hunting all day in the field, he came in to find Jacob had cooked some stew. Famished, he asked for some of that stew. Now, a kind brother, in a perfect family, would have gladly shared his stew with his hungry brother. But sneaky Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright.” The privileges of the birthright included a double portion of the father’s inheritance, leadership over the family, and the blessing to carry on the covenant promise. Esau reasoned that if he died of hunger his birthright was useless, so he sold his birthright to Jacob for a single meal. The Bible record says that he “despised” his birthright.
That wasn’t the only episode of sibling rivalry. Later, when Isaac was anticipating his own death and when he couldn’t see well any more, he called Esau in and asked him to prepare some wild game that he might eat it and give Esau his fatherly blessing. Esau obeyed his father and went out to hunt, but devious Rebekah had overheard the conversation. Now, remember she had also heard God’s words that her older son would serve her younger son. So, she connived with Jacob to make that happen. She asked Jacob to get two goats from the flock so she could prepare delicious food for Isaac and so that Jacob could receive Isaac’s blessing instead of Esau. Because Esau was a hairy man, Jacob didn’t think they could trick Isaac into giving a blessing. He wondered if he might get a curse instead. But Rebekah assured him. She got Jacob some of Esau’s clothes, and put goat skins on his arms and neck to imitate Esau’s hairiness. Although Jacob lied about his own identity when he brought the food into his father, Isaac trusted the hairy hands to be those of Esau more than he was dissuaded by the apparent voice of Jacob. Obviously Jacob wasn’t very good at vocal impressions. As a result, Isaac gave Jacob the blessing of the firstborn that should have been Esau’s. Mere moments later, when Esau returned from the hunt with his delicious food, the blessing had already been given and could not be taken back and given to Esau. Esau was angry and hated his brother because of the stolen blessing. He resolved to kill him when their father had died.
When these intentions of Esau were related to Rebekah, again this controlling mother had to help God out with his promise to her that the older son would serve the younger. She convinced Isaac to send Jacob back to her father’s house to get a wife, rather than marrying a local Canaanite woman. When Esau saw that Jacob had been sent away, and when he realized that his father didn’t favour the Canaanite women, in spite and rebellion, he married Ishmael’s daughter, in addition to the two Hittite women he had already married. Perfect family… NOT!! Sibling rivalry, scheming, deceit, cheating, impending murder… YES, all of it!! If you were a psychiatrist, how would you analyze that “ordinary” family?
- God’s Grace
Well, you can guess that that’s not the end of the story. We are going to get to the end of the story… next Sunday… we’ll find out what happens when Jacob comes back home. But there is one more part of the story that we want to include and analyze and unpack, and that has to do with God’s grace to… what did we call him in confirmation… cheating ankle-grabber Jacob. Jaocb is an essential Old Testament character because God used him to build the nation of Israel.
a. In a Dream
The first expression of God’s grace came on Jacob’s journey from home to Haran where he would find a wife. The sun had set and it was time to get some sleep before continuing the journey the next day. He found a place under the stars, laid his head on a stone for a pillow, and fell asleep. Genesis 28 records: “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.’”
Jacob heard essentially the same promise from God as was spoken to his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac – descendants, land, blessing. But besides that assurance, Jacob had this unique dream about seeing the angels of God going up and down from earth to heaven on a stairway. A couple of verses later, when Jacob woke up, he acknowledged God’s presence in that place and called it Bethel – the house of God. He also called it the gate of heaven, for he perceived that heaven and earth met right there, through God’s dream revelation and through God’s word. This was a personal sign that the Lord would be Jacob’s God, that Jacob would have a genuine connection with the Almighty and that there is a sure and certain way to heaven.
We need to connect the Old Testament with the New Testament here. I don’t think this Genesis 28 dream story is part of our normal Sunday Bible readings, but Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathanael to discipleship in John 1 is. It is appointed for the Second Sunday after Epiphany is what is known as Series B. That means we will hear it in mid-January. As John 1 comes to a close, Nathanael declares Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Israel, and then Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
OK, so in Jacob’s dream we have angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. And in Jesus’ analogy we have the angels ascending and descending on HIM! Which means that Jesus is actually the stairway to heaven!! WOW!! God reveals and continues to reveal the way to Himself through Jesus, the Word made flesh. God opens up a path for human beings to connect with Him, through Jesus who said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”
I think we can all identify with Old Testament Jacob… cheating in our own ways, trying to best brothers or others, deceiving for personal gain, running away from problems, plotting against someone – family or not. We are sinners – every one! We don’t deserve heaven. We don’t deserve God’s grace coming down from heaven to us, but Jesus is the means by which God’s grace comes to the world. Jesus is the one on whom, through whom, in whom people get to heaven. It would be Jesus’ death on the cross at the end of His earthly ministry that would be the redemption, the reconciliation, the righteousness the forgiveness we need in order to be carried by Jesus, by God’s grace, up to heaven. Jesus is the true gate to heaven that Jacob’s dream foreshadowed. Jesus is the one who fulfilled that word of God that all peoples on earth would be blessed through Jacob and his offspring. We are blessed through Jesus more than we can ask or imagine. Praise God for that!
b. In a Promise
The second expression of God’s grace came in the last words of Jacob’s dream: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Again this was a promise spoken to Jacob’s father and grandfather before him. The gods of the pagan religions in that land were merely local deities who gave protection only within their own territories. The one true God assured Jacob that He would always be with him wherever he went. God’s grace was following this man and his family as He provided for them, protected them, and blessed them. Throughout all the turns of his life, Jacob would learn to trust in God’s promise, His presence, His protection.
We want to make this assurance our own, too. Wherever we go – to work every day, on vacation, or in a relocation – God promises to be with us. Whatever happens in life – success and prosperity, job loss and financial hardship, family problems or family break-up, sickness and death – God will remain our God, and as we heard from Romans 8 last Sunday – NOTHING in all creation will separate us from His love in Jesus.
3. Your (not-so) Perfect Family
a. God uses everything for good
Now, what about your not-so-perfect family? I think we all have our own stories to tell… about sibling rivalry, rebellious teens, family members who have abandoned God, untimely deaths, separation and divorce, arguments over your parents’ estate, disagreements, conceit, pride, hatred, jealousy… all those things that make families NOT perfect. What do you do with all those things that happen? Something else we read in Romans 8 last Sunday was that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. In ALL things… even in the things that we may perceive as bad, unwelcome, destructive… God can and does work good.
In Jacob’s story, it was his harsh treatment of his brother and his deception of his father that led to his trek to find a wife – actually two wives – from whom his twelve sons were born, one of whom carried on the family story and the line which eventually led to the birth of Jesus. God worked good. You may need to figuratively stand back and look at what has happened in your life or in your family in order to see and appreciate and give thanks for the good God has done.
b. Character Development
The other thing that you want to notice is what God does in YOU in all of those unwelcome events. St. Paul writes in Romans 5 that we can rejoice in our sufferings because “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.” And in his epistle, St. James counsels us to “consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because… the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” St. Peter writes about the same topic: “For a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine.” God may be using your not-so-perfect family situation to refine and perfect YOU!
- A Perfect Father
I haven’t been a perfect brother. As I look back on my growing up years, and as I have had conversations with my brother or sister, I realize that there are many things I could have done better, different, and in some cases not at all. I haven’t been a perfect husband or father, either.
But we do have a perfect Father. If you’re going to play the role of a psychiatrist and analyze family dynamics, there is only one perfect Father… our Heavenly Father. Psalm 103 describes Him as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love… He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. [And then, using that Father imagery…] As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.” Then, to parallel the “I am with you wherever you go” promise to Jacob, Psalm 139 reads, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there. If I make my bed in the depths You are there. If I rise on the wings of dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.” In a modern-day psalm, Chris Tomlin sings about our “Good, good Father” who is “perfect in all of your ways to us!”
At the very end of Genesis 28, Jacob made a vow, a commitment, saying “If God is promising to be with me and to watch over me and to provide for me… then He will be my God.” I hope and pray that that is your commitment to God, too, for He is a good, good Father, perfect in all of His ways to you. Amen.