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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 07/16/2017

I’ve mentioned before that because we’re in this Reformation 500 year I’ve wound up reading more of Martin Luther’s writings than I ever had before, in Bible studies some of you have joined me in some of that reading.  As Lutherans, we tend to put Luther on something of a pedestal, admiring his efforts to address abuses that existed in the church at that time, also admiring his intellect and theological insights and his courage in the face of political and church power that wanted him silenced, power that would have silenced most people.  There is much to admire in Luther but in some ways it’s easier to read about him than it is to actually read what he wrote because in much of what he wrote he doesn’t come across as very likable. 

He actually reminds me of the current occupant of the White House in his inability to let any critical comment about him pass without lashing out with childish name calling.  In his Small Catechism explanation of the Eighth Commandment , “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” Luther says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations,” but then, all too often, he does exactly what he says not to do. 

Continuing his explanation Luther says, “Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”  Calling the pope the anti-Christ and the devil incarnate doesn’t exactly portray him in the best possible light and the pope, while perhaps Luther’s biggest target, was hardly the only one.  If your idea of a saint is a perfect person, Luther wasn’t one; his flaws as a human being are quite glaring.  And yet…he did some pretty remarkable things. 

In my own reading of Luther I have found myself disappointed in him; I want him to be better than he is, more like the saint who is a perfect person.  Recently though, I find myself asking, “Why?”  Why should he be any different than the rest of us?  Granted, you do have to read him with filters and he did say a lot of things that you wish he didn’t say.  You read about someone like Abraham Lincoln who sometimes wrote letters when he was mad at someone, but then, after getting his anger off his chest, he folded the letter up, put it in his pocket and never sent it.  There were times when that’s what Luther should have done with some of what he wrote.  

On the whole though, he did address some issues that needed to be addressed, he did open Christianity to needed reform.  It probably took someone with his sometimes bullish and abrasive personality to do what he did.  Ultimately he becomes another example of God’s use of a flawed human being to accomplish good maybe because flawed human beings are the only kind God can find.

Take Jacob for example, the character who is introduced in today’s first reading; I see some similarities between him and Martin Luther.  Because Luther wrote so much, and because he didn’t have any filters, we wind up with a “warts and all” portrait of him, the bad along with the good, not exactly saintly.  The same kind of thing happens with Jacob.  He dominates the whole middle section of Genesis, about thirteen chapters worth, and even after that when Joseph becomes the main character, Jacob continues to be a factor.  There’s a lot about him, and because of that, Jacob is a more fully developed character than many others that we find in the Bible and with that fuller development, we find that there is much about him that is not exactly saintly either.

Jacob and his brother Esau were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah.  Isaac, you remember, was the long awaited son of Abraham and Sarah, the son who was almost sacrificed by Abraham.  Isaac was the heir announced to Abraham but it’s really through the next generation, through Jacob and his family that the story is told.  It’s Jacob whose name is eventually changed to Israel; it is from him that the nation gets its name.

From the beginning, Jacob is portrayed as a complicated character.  In the womb, he is said to struggle with brother Esau and he winds up grabbing Esau by the heel as Esau is the first born of the twins.  Even then Jacob is portrayed as struggling for position.  It’s all a foreshadowing of Jacob as a trickster, one who schemes and plots always looking for an advantage, which brings us to the last part of today’s reading when Jacob tricks his older brother out of his birthright.

According to Old Testament law, the birthright of the eldest son was that he would receive a double share of the father’s inheritance.  In this case, with two sons, that meant that Esau would get two thirds of Isaac’s wealth when he died, Jacob, one third.  It’s a good deal if you’re the oldest son, not so good for younger sons and I don’t think daughters factored in at all. 

Concerning the two brothers, you get the idea that in some ways Esau could have fit in quite nicely here in the UP with his love of hunting and being outdoors, but he was also rather impulsive, someone prone to taking action without having fully considered the consequences.  Jacob on the other hand, is described as a quiet man and reading between the lines you get the idea that that means he was always thinking, always looking for an angle.  Esau then was father Isaac’s favorite; Jacob was the favorite of his mother, Rebekah.

When impulsive Esau comes home hungry after being out in the field all day and finds Jacob cooking a nice pot of stew, he says, “Give me some!”  Jacob knows his brother, he knows how he gets when he’s hungry; he knows this is when Esau is most vulnerable.  So Jacob proposes a deal: “I’ll give you some stew if you’ll sell me your birthright.”  All Esau can think about is the fact that he’s hungry, so he pretty much says, “Whatever, just give me some food,” and the deed is done; the inheritance due a firstborn son now belongs to Jacob.  You could call it the first recorded instance of identity theft.

The lectionary then skips over the next part of the Jacob/Esau saga when Jacob schemes again, this time to get the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau.  Urged on by his mother Rebekah, this time Jacob tricks his aging and almost blind father Isaac into thinking that he is Esau.  Rebekah had overheard Isaac telling Esau to go hunt some game so he can bless Esau and have one final meal before he dies, so she comes up with a plot to fool Isaac into thinking Jacob is Esau because she wants Jacob to get that blessing.    

You perhaps ask, “What’s the difference between the birthright and the blessing?”  I’ve asked that too and I finally found what I think is a good explanation:  the birthright is just what I said, a double share of the father’s wealth for the oldest son.  The blessing refers back to the blessing that was promised to Abraham, which is the promise of many descendants, the promise of a homeland and the promise that everyone who curses you will be cursed, everyone who blesses you will be blessed.  That was the blessing due to Esau, but because of the trickery of Jacob and Rebekah, he doesn’t get it.  When he found out what had happened, Esau was understandably incensed and resolved to kill Jacob after father Isaac died; but again Rebekah overheard what Esau said and warned Jacob; so he fled, but that’s the next part of the story.

The character of Jacob does evolve, but at this point in the story there is nothing very attractive or admirable about him, nothing that would nominate him for sainthood.  He is a seriously flawed character, not a villain, but seriously flawed.  Yet, it will be through him that God’s story will continue to be told.  He is God’s instrument, just as we would say that in his time Luther was God’s instrument.

There’s grace here; if it was about Jacob’s worthiness to be the recipient of the blessing that started with Abraham, it would be hard to find him worthy.  By the grace of God though, he is made worthy and through him, God’s story will be told.  For us, it may be through characters like Jacob and like Luther that we are better able to recognize our own flaws, our own unworthiness, and not to be devastated by that recognition, but to realize that God can work through us too.

God’s story that starts with characters like Jacob finally becomes told through Jesus and what we find is that Jesus’ story is about God’s unwillingness to give up on flawed humanity.  With the incarnation of Jesus, God takes on human nature and gives flawed humanity a new beginning.  In Christ we see the full possibilities of our human nature.  God then works through our humanity and when we fail, having our human nature touched by Jesus’ divine nature, we get another chance.  We move closer to being who God would have us be, because God won’t give up on us, despite our flaws.

As Luther rightly said, we are simultaneously saints and sinners just as he was and just as Jacob and many others were before him.  It’s an identity that doesn’t lead us to despair, but instead leaves us with hope, knowing that we too are God’s instruments.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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