We gather together today in the wake of the terrible terrorist attacks in London – violence that I suspect has left none of us unaffected.
Tony Blair said, “They will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear” , and it’s hard not to admire his resilience, even though we recognise, I think, that the root of the problem is not an anonymous ‘they’ who simply want to destroy all that we hold dear, and more than there is an axis of evil that simply wants to destroy all things democratic.
In our world at present there are vast numbers of people who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they area at war with the West. And, rightly or wrongly, a goodly number of these people feel that this sort of attack is the most effective means they have of waging war.
This attack was not simply the result of mindless violence or religious fanaticism. It was our invasion of Iraq (and Afghanistan) and the Israeli occupation of Palestine that gave rise to this attack. It was the result of the foreign policy of the US, Brittain and Australia.
Does this mean that we ought to change our foreign policy? Not necessarily. Not if these actions were right and proper. Maybe this is all just a part of the price we have to pay for doing the right thing. And yet this ongoing war must prompt us to ask again whether we really are doing the right thing, and whether we ever should have invaded those countries in the first place.
It is against backdrop of escalating world violence that we look at the ancient Biblical story of Jacob and Esau this morning – a story that, I will warn you now, will give us no guidance whatsoever as to how to solve these issues of global conflict.
Why should we look at it then? Well … partly because it too is a story of conflict, and so it reminds us of the fact that conflict has always been a part of the history of God’s dealings with our world. And also because it is a story about God’s promises, and a reminder that God holds true to His promises despite the conflict.
Now, having stolen the thunder from my sermon already, let me encourage you to stay with me nonetheless, as we may yet find some more surprises in the passage.
Our story today from Genesis chapter 25 picks up after the death of Abraham and focuses on Abraham’s younger son, Isaac, and Isaac’s wife, Rebekah. Isaac’s wife, like Isaac’s mother before her, is apparently cursed with barrenness!
It is amazing how many of the great women in the Bible struggled to have children! The exception of course is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who started having children much earlier than she intended. Rebekah though, like her mother-in-law Sarah, like Hannah the mother of Samuel, like Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, struggled with the fact that they could not naturally fall pregnant.
So Isaac prays. We suspect that Rebekah prayed too. God intervenes, and Rebekah falls pregnant, and yet we are told that her pregnancy is a difficult one.
Now we might have been better served today if we’d had one of our girls preaching on this text, as I’m really not the most appropriate person to explore this any further. Let me though make one theological (rather than gynaecological) observation – that the fact that you are God’s person, doing God’s will, even as a result of God’s miraculous intervention, doesn’t mean that the process will be easy. Indeed, the promises of God often bring with them great pain as well as great blessing.
As Rebekah struggled through her pregnancy, so she struggled with her birth. Strengthening her though in her pain was a word that she apparently got directly from God – that her struggle was part of a broader conflict that was already taking place within her womb – one that was going to play itself out in the lives of her children and indeed through generations to come!
Jacob and Esau were battling within the womb. When Esau emerges from the womb, Jacob already has a hold of him. As they grow up, they are in constant conflict, as the descendents of Jacob and Esau are to this day! When will it all end? This was no doubt Rebekah’s cry, and a prophetic lament that would echoe through the succeeding generations.
Now I don’t know whether any of you ever saw that comedy movie called ‘Twins’ with Arnold Schwarznegger and Danny De Vito, where the pair supposedly were twins. Jacob and Esau are a bit like that. All the testosterone seems to go to Esau!
This is clear enough from the birth itself. Esau emerges from the womb covered in hair! To no one’s surprise he grows up to be a great hunter, an outdoors man, captain of the local rugby team and, I suspect, an accomplished pugilist. Jacob, on the other hand, were are told was a quiet man and a‘dweller in tents’. This means that he stuck close to his mum. He was good at cooking, needlework, and helping out around the house.
Was he gay? Well … they didn’t use labels like that in those days. What we do know is that Jacob was clever and that he was ambitious, and that he was very much his mummy’s boy, whereas Esau was his dad’s favourite.
What sort of parents are these, who show partiality and favouritism to one child over the other? What sort of family is this, with two warring brothers – one strong and hairy and the other smooth and smart? This is a real family! These are real parents! Perhaps they are your parents! This is not to say that your mum really loved your little sister more than she did you, but perhaps she did!
“Now look here, son, it’s not that I don’t want to turn up to watch any of your fights . It’s just not my sort of thing. Look how well your brother is doing with his studies! Don’t you think you’d be a little better off, modelling yourself a bit more on him ..?”
Family dynamics tend to be very subtle and hard to understand, let alone untangle. Back in those days, before the word dysfunctional found its way into the Hebrew dictionary, they spelt it out in simple terms: Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
And just as is always the case in family breakdown, the real crunch-time came over something as trivial as a bowl of stew!
Esau is famished, having been working all day in the field. He comes home and smells the red stew that his brother has been cooking on the stove. Esau says, “give me some of that red stuff”.Jacob says, “It’s not ‘red stuff’. It’s boeuf bourguignon, and you can’t have any.” “But why not”,says Esau, “I’m starving!” “OK”, says Jacob, “I’ll tell you what. You give me your birthright, make me heir to the family fortune, sign over all your inheritance to me, make me the older brother – first-born in the family, etc., etc., and I’ll give you a small bowlful.” And Esau says, “Yeah, OK!”And so he despises his birthright.
There endeth the reading, but not the story of the battle between the brothers. Indeed, the brothers continue to war with each other today in roughly the same area of land as they did way back then. The weaponry and the rhetoric have both become more sophisticated, but underneath it all we still have two brothers who continue to struggle.
That’s not to say that today’s reading gives us any clues as to how we should untangle the problem. As I warned you at the outset, this is a story that gives us no guidance whatsoever as to how we should resolve modern conflicts, though I suppose we could take as a morale to the story,“never make any important decisions when you’re hungry”.
Really though, that is not what this story is about, is it? It’s not a lesson in how we can live more prudently, any more than it is primarily a story about dysfunctional families. Ultimately this is a chapter in a lager story, where the key character is God and where the focus of the story is God’s promise – the promise He made to Abraham, Isaac’s father, that is being worked out through Jacob and Esau, and perhaps despite Jacob and Esau!
It is the promise of God that is working itself out in the lives of Jacob and Esau, and in this case it is a promise that involves a subversion of the normal social order.
Here as elsewhere in the Biblical drama, God is in the process of turning things upside-down. The first are being moved to the back and the last are coming first. The older brother, who should have been set up for life as the inheritor of the estate and new Lord of the Manor is finding himself dispossessed by that cunning little nancy-boy that he still can’t believe is really his brother!
This cannot happen! This is not simply a family matter. This cuts away at the basic social fabric of Ancient Near Eastern society. Through these actions, the whole social order is potentially thrown into confusion. How can it be that the older will serve the younger? This is not the way things are supposed to work!
Ancient Near Eastern society might not have been the easiest culture in the world to live in, but at least everybody knew their place. Men did the work and made the decisions. Women stayed at home and did their thing. Older brothers knew that the responsibilities of their fathers would ultimately be passed on to them, and younger brothers and sisters knew that the way to secure a good future for themselves involved keeping in the good books of your oldest brother.
But here it is all being turned upside-down. “God is bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly“, as Mary would later say. “He is filling the hungry with good things, but the rich He is sending empty away!”
And it’s not because Jacob is a great guy – a man of prayer and compassion, a man after God’s own heart. No, Jacob is a heel (hence the name). But God remains true to His promises, despite the morally dubious character of some of his children.
Now it’s easy for us to find this story amusing of course when it’s all at a distance, but the truth is, when we look at our world climate today, I think we are starting to find ourselves in the position of the older brother.
We middle-class people of Australia are part of a privileged class in today’s world. We have inherited much in this country that we did not work for. We enjoy a level of wealth and ease that is completely alien to the people of Iraq, or so many people within the African nations. We have taken our level of comfort and security for granted, and now we turn around and we see little Jacob grabbing at our heel!
This is not to say that acts of terrorism that disrupt our world are a part of God’s work, but it is to say that the Lord does not promise us stability while he fulfils His promises. Indeed, He has never promised stability while He fulfils His promises. Indeed, according to Jesus, earthly security is not only not on offer to his disciples, it is not an option!
So if we cannot expect God to keep us cosy in this world, what can we expect?
We can expect God to be true to His promises. We can expect the Kingdom!
This is indeed the ultimate promise of God – the promise that was being worked out through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – a promise that one day all the world would be blessed through that descendent of Abraham, Jesus, when He comes in his glory to usher in the new world.
That is the promise that lies behind our story today, and it is the promise that we still cling to as we live out our part in that same story – that the day will indeed come ‘when the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea‘. That the ‘lion and the lamb will lie down’ , that ‘every tear ultimately will be wiped away’ in that new world ‘where death, the final enemy will itself be destroyed‘.
This is the Biblical hope. This is the promise of God. This is the thread that runs through these ancient Scriptures, connects us back to these people of old, and which points us forward in hope to a new tomorrow. It’s not a hope of short-term stability. It is a promise of a new world.
So how do we deal with the problems of violence that we face in our world today?
Well … we do our best to do what is right! We act in love and in justice, and we live with the consequences of wherever love and justice take us.
And we recognise that whatever stance we take, there will always be conflict, as conflict has always been a part of God’s dealings with our world. And so we put our hope in the promise of God, that one day … the Kingdom.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, July 2005.