Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/24/2011

“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob;” so it says in Chapter 1, vs. 2 of Matthew, the beginning of the genealogy of Jesus, a genealogy that reflects back to the stories of the Old Testament and that’s where we pick up our Old Testament story from Genesis today.  The names are familiar even if the sequence and how they’re all related gets confusing, but what we’re into at this point is the unfolding of God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations, that he would have land and offspring. 

The fulfillment of that promise didn’t seem likely at first with Abraham and his wife Sarah being old and she being barren, but by the blessing of the Lord son Isaac was finally born so there was hope.  A couple of weeks ago the story had to do with finding a wife for Isaac to keep the promise going and that need was filled by Rebekah.  It turns out though that Rebekah was barren too, but again by the grace of the Lord she conceived and gave birth to twins Esau and Jacob. 

Jacob becomes a key figure in everything that follows in Genesis, but as was the case with Isaac, for the story to go on, Jacob needed a wife and that’s today’s story.  It takes place while Jacob is on the run from brother Esau who wanted to kill him.  You might remember that Esau was something of a Yooper, rugged, he like the outdoors, was a prolific hunter.  Apparently though, he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer as not once, but twice, his sneaky brother Jacob had tricked him, first out of his birthright, his rightful inheritance as the firstborn of the two brothers, then later Jacob tricked him out of his father’s blessing and I’m not sure exactly how that differed from his birthright, but suffice it to say that he had been tricked twice by Jacob.  Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

What’s great about these stories is that as old as they are, they show us that human nature hasn’t really changed a whole lot and the Bible doesn’t sugar coat any of it.  We can tend to be surprised by the Bible’s unwillingness to gloss over the flaws of its characters but then you figure if the Bible didn’t include stories of realistic people with real emotions, inclinations and temptations, qualities both good and bad, it wouldn’t have much to say to us because it wouldn’t have much we can identify with.  So again, starting with Abraham we have this unfolding story of God’s involvement with an expanding family of imperfect people in situations that get rather complicated and I’m pretty sure we can relate to imperfect people and family situations that get complicated.

Anyway, back to Jacob, on the run, in search of a wife.  He winds up among the family of Laban who is actually his uncle, his mother Rebekah’s brother.  A lot of this sounds rather incestuous to us, but at that time that wasn’t the case so you have to set those sensibilities aside.  In Laban though, Jacob in a sense has met his match.  Jacob is a con-man, but so is Laban, and in this case Laban out cons Jacob.  Jacob was attracted to Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, who, according to the text, was graceful and beautiful.  Laban however, wanted to marry off his older daughter Leah, who had lovely eyes.  I don’t know if that’s the equivalent of saying that she had a good personality or what, but whatever the reason, Laban seemed to think it might be hard to find her a husband but in Jacob he thinks he might have someone who can take Leah off his hands.   

So Laban gave Jacob a dose of his own medicine, pulling a fast one on him sending Leah into Jacob’s tent in the dark when Jacob thinks it’s Rachel who is coming to him.  The end result is that Jacob does wind up with Rachel, who he loves, as a wife, but as part of the bargain, the result of Laban’s con job, he also winds up with Leah, who he doesn’t love so much, as a second wife which perhaps doesn’t live up to our ideal of marriage but when it comes to marriage in the Bible there isn’t much that does live up to our ideal.

You might note though, that there is nothing particularly theological about this story; there’s no evidence of God’s presence or involvement in the events that unfold.  It’s two people, Jacob and Laban, trying to control events and trying to manipulate each other in ways that are utterly human, without any reference to God.  In the verses that were read today as well as in the 14 that precede it in this chapter of Genesis, the Lord is never even mentioned.

In much of this part of the Jacob story, he does operate without reference to the Lord, depending instead on his wits and his reading of the situation, trying to control his affairs and his destiny.  That makes him a character we can quite easily relate to, because isn’t that how we operate much of the time?  We profess our faith and we go to church but still we go about our business a lot of the time as if God were not a player, as if it were all up to us. 

Just prior to this story though, there was another story, another story that provides Jacob and us with a different perspective.  It’s the Jacob’s ladder story where resting for the night Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches up to heaven and he sees angels ascending and descending on it.  In the dream, the Lord stands beside Jacob.  First, he reiterates the promise made to Abraham and tells Jacob that he is now the heir of that promise; now it’s about him.  The Lord says, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 

Know that I am with you.  I will keep you.  I will not leave you.  Those are beautiful, reassuring words spoken to Jacob, words that we would like to hear the Lord speak to us, and we have.  While they are not the exact words spoken to each of us at the time of our baptism, they do underlie everything that goes on in baptism.  I am with you.  I will keep you.  I will not leave you.  In baptism promises are made by the baptized or on behalf of the baptized by parents and sponsors but these words are God’s side of the baptismal covenant.  So in essence we have heard those words spoken to us and they are beautiful and reassuring. 

Jacob was deeply moved by his dream and by these words.  “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” he said.  “How awesome is this place.  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”  And then he went on his way, almost as if it had never happened.  He went on his way into today’s story still trying to manage and control things, not terribly concerned with this experience of the divine, and again, can’t we relate?  In some fashion we’ve all been there.  Like Jacob we go on our way as if nothing has happened, but along the way things have happened; we’ve had those moments where God’s presence was real. 

Today’s gospel is the parable of the mustard seed in which Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a tiny seed that grows and becomes the greatest of shrubs.  As is the case with any of the parables there are different ways it can be interpreted but relating it to the Jacob story, could we say that the Jacob story is a story of mustard seed faith?  Jacob had this brush with the divine and it moved him in his relationship to the Lord, but he continued to be a rather unsavory character. 

And yet…he is the heir to the promise, but he can’t control the promise.  The Lord will take that mustard seed of faith present in Jacob and do remarkable things with it despite Jacob’s unsavoriness and isn’t that comforting and reassuring?  Jacob’s character flaws are still firmly in place, including his neglect of his relationship with the Lord, yet the Lord will work with him and through him using the little bit of faith Jacob has.

Even though we know we shouldn’t quantify faith it’s hard not to do it and when we do we wish we had more, whatever more means.  It’s hard not to think that way.  We know that faith is a good thing so we wish we had more and it is right that we engage in practices that help us grow in faith, help us grow in relationship with God.    

So everybody wishes they had more faith, but the parable reminds us that God can do a lot with a mustard seed.  Like Jacob, each of us is a flawed character and, at least in moments of honesty, each of us knows it and better than anyone else each of us knows what our particular flaws are to the point where it can make you wonder how you can ever do anything that is God pleasing.  We’re flawed, there’s no denying it, but the mustard seed of faith is there too and it’s enough that we can be productive members of the kingdom because the kingdom is not about how much faith we have, it’s about how much God can do with a mustard seed.

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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