Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field,
and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red
stuff, for I am famished!” …Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
They don’t come any more devious, self-serving, spoiled or immature than Jacob was. He seemed to have been born that way. When he emerged from the womb, says this morning’s lesson, his hand was gripping the heel of his twin brother Esau who had just been born. Hence he was named “Jacob”, which means “he supplants.” And he lived up to his name! In the first place, he was a “mommy’s boy”. Rebekah always favored Jacob over Esau and he was used to getting his way. And not only did he talk his older brother out of his birthright (a double share of his father’s estate), but if you read on, you’ll see that with his mother’s help he also did Esau out of his father Isaac’s final blessing.
It took Jacob a long time to grow up. Like most immature people he was remarkably blind to the effect he had on others. His doting mother did shock him into some awareness after the blessing fiasco: she warned him that his brother was out to kill him and he better leave town and find himself a wife. (A good wife can really help a man grow up, as mine has with me!) God intervened too with a wake-up call to Jacob. Next Sunday’s lesson from Genesis will tell that story about the dream Jacob had along the way, out under the stars at night, about a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels upon it, and the voice of God promising him a great family who would people the earth.
Jacob finally finds the right woman to be his wife, the lovely Rachel, daughter of a kinsman named Laban. Jacob falls deeply in love with her, but in an ironic twist of fate, her father strikes a hard bargain with him before letting her go: he must first put in seven hard years of labor. Jacob worked the seven years, says the Bible, “and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20) Thank God for Jacob’s good wife Rachel—he’s beginning to grow up! But old habits die hard and his final departure with his family to return to Palestine is filled with trickery and intrigue on the part both of Jacob and of his father-in-law Laban. Those two deserved each other!
But if you read on, you’ll see that God has the last word in Jacob’s coming of age. When he gets near home, messengers arrive telling him that his brother Esau is coming out to meet him accompanied by four hundred men! Jacob is terrified, and prays fervently, and confesses his unworthiness, and begs God to deliver him from Esau’s wrath. That night he has another heavenly encounter: a man wrestles with him until daybreak. But Jacob is very strong, and he holds on for dear life. So the man puts Jacob’s hip out of joint. But he refuses to let go unless the man blesses him. The man—whom Jacob realizes is none other than the living God—does bless him, and changes his name from Jacob to Israel, which means “the one who strives with God.”
The next chapter, the 33rd, describes the meeting of the two brothers. Jacob approaches with the lavish gifts he has prepared, and bows low seven times. But Esau runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him—and the two brothers burst into tears. The rest, as we say, is history. But the history of God’s people will be marked time and again by the coming of age of ordinary, not-very-mature people whom God singles out for greatness. Some of them we will meet again this summer as we follow the Old Testament readings. We’ll meet Joseph, Jacob’s youngest son, who starts out just like his father—arrogant, self-centered, appallingly immature, thoroughly hated by his brothers—but who grows up to be a very great economist in Egypt. We’ll get reacquainted with Moses who tries his best to get out of rescuing Israel from the Egyptians; but God inspires and empowers him to lead his people through the wilderness to safety in the promised land.
As the centuries pass, God raises up countless ordinary people, like the farmer Amos who leaves his herds and crops to proclaim God’s wrath upon the faithless Israelites. Jeremiah protests he’s only a child, but by God’s grace he will be counted among the greatest of the prophets. He will grow strong and mature through incredible suffering. Suffering indeed will become a major catalyst in the maturing of Israel. The unknown prophet whose writings are appended to the Book of Isaiah will portray both Israel’s pain and Israel’s hope in some of the most moving words of the Old Testament. He writes from Babylon where the Israelites are held in exile, and he imagines his faithful flock to be like a servant whose suffering will be used for good by God’s infinite grace: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity….But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3,5)
Looking back to Jacob and Rachel and their forebears, and ahead to the great prophets, and to the successes and failures of their nation, the whole Old Testament can be portrayed as a people growing up out of childhood and coming of age. Then, in the fullness of time, God intervenes in history in the person of Jesus, whose suffering love on behalf of others will reflect Isaiah’s suffering servant, and whose death and resurrection will usher in a whole new way of life and hope. Jesus will personify God’s very nature and character, and his followers will become a new Israel who will proclaim to the world the transforming power of Christ. Those who commit their lives to him will discover the maturity to live for God and God’s world, instead of living for self.
And that is the high calling which God places before you and me. As with Jacob and Joseph, and Moses and Jeremiah and all the rest, God calls us to grow up and be mature, to learn the joy of serving, to follow in the way of the cross, which means to make of our lives an offering to the glory of God and the welfare of God’s world. God is like the sower in Jesus’ parable today. He keeps on sowing, sowing, sowing—like a faithful farmer. But the seed falls on all different kinds of ground—just like God’s grace falls on all different kinds of people. As I look back on my own life, I see painful glimpses of my shallowness when I was like a rocky path where the seed could take no root, or when I was filled with thorn-like ambitions and distractions which choked God’s efforts to help me grow up. Believe me, I’ve needed a lot of help!
As I said earlier, God provided me with the most wonderful wife, and she’s done me worlds of good. And God has sown seeds in me in countless other ways to help me mature. Most of them have been in the form of various other faithful souls who, like my wife, were far more mature than I and whose paths I have been privileged to cross. One of those is another “suffering servant” whose name is Kate. I’ve known her almost as long as I’ve known Joannie because they have been friends since childhood. Kate, like Joannie, lost a brother at sea during the Second World War. She’s also buried two husbands. She has seven children, most of them healthy but two of them suffering from Autism, profoundly retarded, and living in a mental hospital. And now Kate herself has cancer and is in stage four.
But if you were to meet Kate you would have no clue to any of this, unless you happened to notice her wig, due to her chemotherapy. She is one of the most vibrant, vivacious people you could ever meet. Her sense of humor knows no bounds. When she and Joannie talk on the phone, which they do frequently, the laughter starts within seconds. One morning Joannie called her and she answered in a whisper. “What’s wrong?” Joannie asked. “I’m in church!” she hissed. She used to go to Mass every day, and it grieves her that she can’t do it anymore. You could say that life is cruel to Kate. But she doesn’t see it that way. Recently Joannie asked her how she sees the road ahead. Her reply was vintage Kate. She said cheerfully, “I’m ready for whatever God has in store for me.” What a gal! I pray I can grow up to be that mature!