“Known and Unknown;” Genesis 29:15-28; July 27, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Known and Unknown
Genesis 29:15-28
July 27, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacOur scripture today comes to us not too long after our scripture from last week. Our main character, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, taking his brother, Esau’s inheritance. His brother vows to kill him and so Jacob runs off to Haran, to the family of his mother, Rebekah. In the scripture we read last week he had a dream where God extended the covenant of Abraham on to him, that is to say he is promised to be the father of many nations. With this promise of God in mind, he continues his journey towards Haran and he comes across a cousin of his, Rachel.

SLIDE 3 – Jacob and ShepherdsWhen Jacob was still a bit away from Haran he comes across a group of shepherds, and we read in Genesis 29:7-14 as Jacob days to the shepherds, “‘Look, it is still broad daylight; it is not time for the animals to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go, pasture them.’ But they said, ‘We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.’ While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Slide04 Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.”

It’s hard to imagine from our perspective, but in that time many family’s engaged in “intermarriage,” that is they preferred their children to marry their relatives’ children. And so, Rachel would be an ideal wife for Jacob, made even more ideal in their interaction. He wept aloud, presumably overcome by his attraction to Rachel.

Slide05And then we find ourselves at our scripture for today: “Now Laban had two daughters,” the story begins simply enough. Rachel we are told, is graceful and beautiful, more than that she is the one that Jacob was so overwhelmed by on their first interaction.

Slide06Then we are told there’s something strange about Leah’s eyes. In the Hebrew they’re described by the word rahke, but there’s much disagreement about what this word means. Depending on the translator it is translated as, “ tender,[1]” “weak,[2]” “lovely,[3]” “delicate,[4]” or “nice[5].” Whatever it is about her, she is placed as the inferior of the two sisters, though she is older.

Slide07 Their father Laban strikes a deal with Jacob, he will work the land for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Then we hear the lovely phrase, “so Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.”[6]

You can ask David about how quickly the last nine months have passed as we’ve been preparing for our wedding.

Slide08Then there is a wedding, but when Jacob wakes up, we read in the scripture, “When morning came, it was Leah!” In the Hebrew there’s the exclamation hinneh! in the middle of this sentence. It holds the meaning “behold!” or “lo!” but it in a modern translation it might carry the same meaning as throwing an explicative in the middle of this sentence. It is certainly a statement of surprise, and not a welcome one.

And so, in a karmatic turn of events, Jacob who had deceived his father in the darkness of his father’s blindness, is deceived by Laban in the darkness of the night. Jacob then goes back to work for another seven years so that he may indeed marry Rachel, his beloved.

Slide09 It is not lost on me that this passage on marriage comes in the lectionary less than a week before David and I are to be married. Over the past weeks and months we’ve heard well wishes for our wedding day, and cautions about how hectic of a week and day it will be. While I understand that all of these thoughts come from experience, I might recommend a reading of this section of Genesis to any apprehensive wedding couples, firm in the knowledge that any logistical slip ups of the day pale in comparison to the chaos of this story.

There are so many questions in this strange tale of two deceptions, two weddings, and two wives, and things don’t become particularly smooth for Jacob and his family following this story. One of the questions that stood out for me the most in my reading of the text this time around, was how Jacob could possibly not be aware that it was Leah he was marrying and not Rachel.

Slide10Biblical scholars offer all sorts of suggestions, the heaviness of the veil, the heaviness of the alcohol consumption at the wedding festivities, but even with all of those things in mind it’s really hard to imagine how Jacob could be so mistaken. We are told there is something strange about Leah’s eyes, but in reality it seems that Jacob’s eyes are the ones that are unfocused.

Though I will be wearing a veil at our wedding, it will certainly not be nearly as dense as that of Leah’s, not leaving any room for a mistaken identity at the altar. And though I am the younger of two sisters, I am also sure my sister and her fiancé would have something to say about any last minute changes in the bridal party, particularly in terms of the bride or groom.

Slide11So what can we learn from this strange story? What does a mistaken identity thousands of years ago have to do with us? While hopefully we do not have family members who would seek to manipulate our love in such treacherous ways, there are deceptions in which we willingly engage as we approach those we love. We’ve heard the adage, “love is blind,” and if we don’t seek to clear our eyes long enough to truly know the person whom we love, we are stuck in this blindness, which can be helpful in some situations, but debilitating in others.

Slide12When I was at the Festival of Homiletics, the preaching festival held in Minneapolis this past May, I heard Princeton seminary professor, Craig Barnes speak about this strange story of Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s love and Laban’s deception. In a sermon on the same topic Craig Barnes writes, “Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. Rachel is the one you love, and you’re sure that she will be the blessing to your life. But you can’t have Rachel without taking Leah, who you don’t love and you didn’t think you were getting. Not long after you are together, you discover you didn’t get just Rachel. You’re also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel.”[7]

Slide13 There is always both known and unknown going into any relationship. What is known can be idealized, what is unknown can be troubling, but we will have to come to terms with both if we want that relationship to flourish. It’s easy enough to put this same equation in play with nearly any relationship in your life: the parts of your job that you love and the parts you tolerate; the experiences with your family that bring you deep joy and the issues that you deal with; and even the parts of your experiences with Christianity that excite you and the parts that seem frustratingly unattainable.

Slide14Perhaps there are places in our lives where we experience the reverse, ways that we feel we were held up to such high expectations that disappointing the other was inevitable. It’s hard when you feel like someone has failed you, but it can be even harder to feel like you yourself are that failure.

Slide15While scripture never tells us how Leah feels about any of this, I can’t imagine she appreciated her life, passion, and capacity for love being set aside so that her father could get fourteen years of work out of her cousin. I can imagine Leah in a Brady Bunch-esque way saying, “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel!” Having the strangeness of your eyes held up as your primary identifying characteristic is humiliating, yes, but being offered in marriage in the place of your sister is horrifying. And with Jacob expecting Rachel, beautiful and gracious Rachel, Leah was forced into the role of being the disappointment.

How do we go forward from this place of unattainable expectations, this place of disappointment? How do we redeem our relationships? When given the choice of how we view the flaws in our selves and in each other we can choose grace.

There is a difference between the words weak and lovely, even though they point to the very same eyes. With so many ways to translate our perceptions of each other, might we choose the most gracious?

Slide17This is after all, what God chose. Given our track record of sin and deception from the start of humanity, it seems the sensible thing would be for God to write us off as the human being we are, but God loves us in and beyond our flaws. As if loving us into creation wasn’t enough, God loved us enough to redeem us from our sin and deception through the death of his own son, Jesus Christ. Through Christ every flaw, every imperfection is made perfect.

God loves us not because we’re blameless, but because God deems us worthy of love and worthy of redemption. When we are given the same choice in how we view one another and especially ourselves, may we forever choose grace. Amen.

[1] BHS-W4

[2] NIV, ESVS

[3] NRSV

[4] NKJV

[5] The Message

[6] Genesis 29:20

[7] http://day1.org/1105-the_problem_with_two_spouses

 

“Great Expectations” Luke 2:22-40 February 2, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Great Expectations”
Luke 2:22-40
February 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

New Years Eve I was delighted to count down the New Year with David, my best friend Claire, her husband and their son, sweet 2-year-old James. This past week I was able to spend a bit of time with former interim pastor, Christine and her dear son Jacob. I remember hearing the news of each of these pregnancies was quite exciting. There were baby showers, advice given, well wishes, and I’m sure their stomachs were rubbed more often than they could count. Ever since the babies were born they’ve had visits from excited family members and friends, countless memorable family photos, and birth announcements of all sorts.

Slide03Over 2000 years ago, Isaiah prophesied Christ coming into this world. Angels told Mary she would be a mother and Joseph that he would be a father. There was even a Heavenly birth announcement in the form of a bright star in the sky. But aside from a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary had no real baby shower. Jesus’ birth happened in a crowded manger heated only by the warmth of barnyard animals. They were visited not by family and friends, but by wise men, shepherds, and angels. I’d like to see that odd crew try to bring their frankincense and myrrh past hospital security these days.

Slide04It’s strange to be talking again about the birth of Jesus, but our church calendar brings us today to the “Presentation of Jesus,” celebrating Jesus’ introduction into their community, into the world he had come to save.

Slide05Galatians 4:4 tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” The fullness of time means that Christ’s birth was not intended to be a surprise, Christ came exactly when and where and how and to whom He was meant to come. Yet, the world was not ready. Just as the inns of Bethlehem were occupied, the people’s thoughts were occupied by their own schedules and census travel plans.

Slide06Pregnancy carries it’s own “fullness of time.” There is a set amount time that a woman is pregnant. If she gives birth any earlier, it is cause for concern, any later and most doctors will induce the labor to help the mother and child along. Knowing of the pregnancy, one can begin to prepare, decorate a nursery, and celebrate with family and friends. It is an exciting time of anticipation and hope.

Imagine how different a pregnancy is without this sort of preparation. There are pregnancies that carry more fear than hope: The couple who has suffered a miscarriage and is wary to expect that this time, things will be okay; a young unmarried mother who just wants to hide what is happening insider her, and doesn’t dare speak it out loud; or a woman who doesn’t know she is pregnant, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but just often enough that there is a series on TLC about this experience. Each of these circumstances carries it’s own fear, pain, and yet still, hope.

Slide07Ever since Isaiah’s prophecy the Judaic world had been looking for a messiah. But over time it seems the anticipation inflated expectations. A savior for the world had to be a great king, right? Surely he would be born in a fortress, or castle, or temple, or at the very least, a nice home. Excited for the messiah, they forgot how God works. Since God created all things, God does not place a value system on a person based on how the world sees potential. In fact, more often than not God picks the least and the last and the meek.

Slide08It seems people forgot that Abraham who became the father of many nations, was first cowardly about his marriage to Sarah and so unsure of how God was going to give them an heir that he had a child with his wife’s servant. Slide09They didn’t remember that Moses who led the people out of Egypt was also a murder and poor public speaker. Slide10 They forgot the long list of faults David carried with him even while becoming a great king. So while we can look at first century Bethlehem with clear hindsight and see that of course God would chose to become incarnate as a meek and humble infant to serve the humble and meek, this was not so clear to the people of that time.

Slide11So when Jesus showed up in the midst of a census, in a town with no vacancies, the bright star in the sky seemed to be no more than coincidence to the devout religious scholars. They were so busy trying to follow God as they had been told through stone tablet commandments and wound up scrolls of Torah law that they were unaware that God incarnate was living and breathing in the world. While the world was given many signs of Christ’s birth, they were not throwing baby showers, keeping an eye out for young pregnant women, or looking towards young children, looking in their eyes for a savior. Rather they react more like a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant. When they hear of Jesus’ birth they react, not by worshipping their savior, but with disbelief and fear.

Slide12One of my favorite characters surrounding Christ’s birth is Simeon, who Joyce read about in our text today, and who was acted out by Rich Bucknell on Christmas Eve. Simeon has been waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his own death. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much about the character of Simeon, but early Christian folklore provides some interesting stories on this “righteous and devout” man.

Slide13One such story, places Simeon as one of 70 original scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. In this story, Simeon was assigned to translate the scroll for the book of Isaiah, and as he worked, he came to a verse we hear often in our Christmas scriptures, Isaiah 7:14, which says “and the virgin shall conceive, and she will bear a son…” and Simeon hesitated, questioning the believability of this statement. Simeon concludes that somewhere along the way someone must have written this wrong, so he decides to correct the error himself.

But just as Simeon’s is about to write out his new translation, an angel appears to him, telling him the prophecy is correct as written, a virgin will indeed conceive and bear a son. Simeon questions the angel, who then promises him he will not die until he has seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in the form of a Messiah. Now, historians tell us the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was finished somewhere around 132 BC, so if this folk tale is to be believed, it would mean Simeon would be somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth.

I still like this story. I can imagine Simeon as a young scribe, excited about this unbelievable miracle that he is going to witness. A messiah is coming to save his people. I like to imagine this man walking among the people, smelling of the burnt offerings of the temple, praying for peace for those he passed. Well, time passes, and Simeon grows older. I can’t imagine him keeping the story of his interaction with the Holy Spirit a secret, so there might be others waiting with him, for a while at least. Maybe they question the believability of all of this as well. Maybe they question his sanity. But, finally, so many years later the Holy Spirit comes to him again and guides him to the temple.

It is now eight days after Jesus’ birth and as Mary and Joseph enter the temple, Simeon approaches them excitedly. The Holy Spirit helps him to recognize the child and he takes him in his arms saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Then he turns and says, specifically to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” So much for a happy birth announcement.

The angel told Mary earlier in Luke’s gospel that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” but was not really given much detail about what else would happen to this infant, “Son of God,” child of hers. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel comes to Joseph and says, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But there isn’t much more instruction to that either. What will this saving son look like?

Slide16Simeon fills in a bit of the details and at first they seem exciting, “a light for revelation and glory.” This would make a great bumper sticker.  Can’t you just see it on their donkey cart now? But then he continues: “falling and rising of many,” “a sign that will be opposed,” a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Now this is not something a mother would like to hear.

Previous to this encounter we read of angels coming to Mary telling her of Jesus’ birth and  “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” An angel has to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid. Later we read of the shepherds and that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, Simeon tells them of the pain that comes with being the earthly parents of the messiah. I’m sure this terrified them too.

Every new parent dreams of what the future will hold for their child. If a child kicks their feet we may predict a future of soccer or football, if they point their feet, maybe ballet. If a child has long fingers we may say they will be a musician or an artist.

Slide19In Korean culture, there is a tradition along these lines called Doljanchi. This Korean tradition celebrates the birthday of a one-year-old baby. The most important part of the dol is a ritual in which the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, books, brushes, ink and money. Family and friends gathered watch the child to see what object they will pick up. This object is said to foretell the child’s future. If they pick up the brush or book they are destined to be a scholar; if money, they will be wealthy; if cakes, they will be in government; if a sword or bow, they will be a military commander, if the thread, they will live a long life. Over time, the objects have changed based on societal perceptions of successful occupations. Nowadays there might be a computer mouse for success in a technological field, a toothbrush for a dentist, or a gavel for lawyer.

I imagine the type of table Mary and Joseph would set up at Jesus’ dol. They would likely put a hammer, wanting Jesus to be a carpenter like his father. They might place a scroll, hoping him to be a temple scholar. They might put a fish, so he might be a fisherman, and a string, hoping also for a long life. However, nothing in Simeon’s prediction would likely be on that table.

Slide20In a few minutes Olivia will sing “Mary Did You Know?” This song is a beautiful but haunting song that speaks of the daunting reality awaiting Christ, this tiny baby resting in Simeon’s arms. The works of his ministry, the impact of his faithfulness, the implications of what it will mean for him to be the savior.

If Jesus’ heavenly Father were to set up a dol,  it would have fishing lure, so Jesus would fish for people. There would be sheep’s wool, for leading. Next to those would be things no earthly father would set on the table, nails and a crown made of thorns. God knew Jesus would pick up all of these things.Slide23

The nativity story is not the story of a birthday party. Yes there are guests and gifts, but it’s also a scary and complicated time for this young family. It was not an easy journey to Bethlehem. It was not easy to find a place for Jesus to be born and shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod is already trying to find and kill him. Simeon further complicates things by singing one of the oddest birthday songs you will ever hear; a song filled with joy, gratitude, and pain.

This is indeed a strange birthday, because this baby comes not to receive gifts, but to give them. Jesus comes into our lives Christmas after Christmas, as an infant, but lived in our world as a Messiah. Today we celebrate his entrance into this community, his introduction into the world he had come to save. He is eager to share in our every complication and joy. Jesus comes to give us the gift of life everlasting. We are welcomed to this birthday to receive. May you, as Simeon, be open to the Holy Spirit and eager to experience God in your own life. Amen.