Sunday, August 27, 2017
Scripture: Psalm 133 & Genesis 31:43-55
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
This is our second to last week in our Living History series in Genesis, and I’ve had a lot of good feedback from you. I’ve had people tell me that they never considered these ancient stories in the manner we’ve looked at them. I’ve had others tell me that it’s been years since they paid much attention to some of these stories. Most importantly, I’ve had people share how they are seeing the connections between the Bible and their lives, which, quite frankly, is what this is all about.
We’re going to go back in time from last week. Last week Pastor Jill preached about Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious figure in Genesis 32, urging us to consider how it’s often in the struggle that we find blessing. This week we’re backing up to the decades between Jacob’s stealing of his brother Esau’s blessing and his wrestling at Peniel before encountering Esau for the first time since he stole from him.
In these decades between, Jacob returns to his family’s ancestral lands in Haran, where he meets his scheming match in his future father-in-law, Laban.
This has me thinking about the unintended consequences of our actions because the Laban-Jacob story is rife with them. Have you ever heard of the Cobra Effect? It’s a term used for when the apparent solution for a problem actually makes the first problem worse. Back when the sun never set on the British Empire, the British government grew concerned about the number of cobras slithering around the streets of Delhi. This sounds like a perfectly reasonable concern to me, and so they decided to do something about it. The government offered a bounty for every dead cobra brought to it. Initially, this simple plan worked really well. Scores of snakes were killed, and the chances of a person encountering a cobra in the streets declined. Sounds good, right?
Well, it was, at least initially. Soon, some of the locals discovered that this was good business for them, so they began to breed cobras so they could kill them and make money. The government caught wind of what was happening and scrapped the program. The breeders had tons of worthless snakes on their hands, so they released them back onto the streets of Delhi, resulting in a boom of the wild cobra population. What looked like a good solution actually made the problem worse. That’s the Cobra Effect.
Especially in this era, we’ve seen the way decent plans can take a left turn quickly. The rise of the internet has ratcheted up the opportunities for this sort of thing. In 2016 the United Kingdom held an online contest to name a new polar research vessel. It had grand plans, even boasting, “Can you imagine one of the world’s biggest research labs travelling to the Antarctic with your suggested name proudly emblazoned on the side?” Names like Shackleton, Endeavour, and Falcon were early leaders, until, on a lark, a man named James Hand suggested “Boaty McBoatface.” Word spread quickly, and Boaty McBoatface took the lead. Regretting his submission, James Hand apologized profusely, but it didn’t keep the name from being the runaway winner. The U.K.’s Natural Environment Research Council decided against naming the vessel Boaty McBoatface and instead christened it “Attenborough,” after David Attenborough, the famous voice of BBC’s Planet Earth series. Later the same agency did relent and named a smaller research boat Boaty McBoatface, showing its good humor and that there is plenty of space for levity still in the world.
Comedian Stephen Colbert rode the wave of this same type of internet silliness. One of the running gags on his show was getting the Colbert Nation to take internet votes by storm to name things after him. In 2006, he won an internet contest to have new bridge in Budapest, Hungary, named after him. (Sadly, for Colbert, officials in Hungary declared that he hadn’t met two conditions to make this a reality. He wasn’t fluent in Hungarian, and he wasn’t dead.)
In 2009, Colbert tried again, this time with Node 3, an addition to the International Space Station. There were four name suggestions from NASA, but their top vote-getter lost by 40,000 votes to the write-in votes for Colbert. NASA opted to name the unit Tranquility, but in a nod to Colbert, they renamed their space treadmill the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or C.O.L.B.E.R.T.
These are funny stories for sure, but they’re also stories about people who tried to manipulate their circumstances to achieve their own aim.
Jacob’s uncle, Laban, was certainly a person who was always up for manipulating others to get what he wanted. It’s incredible watching both Jacob and Laban wheel and deal, manipulate, and lie to get what they want. Genesis 29-31 reads like its own novel, bridging Jacob’s youth through the birth of his own family, who would go on to make up the twelve tribes of Israel. These chapters are worth a read after church, just so you can catch up on the plot. In them we see that Jacob’s own uncle, Laban, is predisposed to being a swindler just like Jacob. For over two decades these two cut deals with each other, compete with each other, and ultimately need to go their own ways. It must run in the genes.
Just to put us all on the same page, here’s my one-minute summary of these chapters.
- Jacob flees from Esau by going towards ancestral lands.
- Meets Rachel at the well, and he falls head over heels for her. (29:10-11)
- He’s so enamored with her that he singlehandedly moves the stone cover off of the well. We’ve all been there before – feats of strength to prove to someone we should be worth their attention!
- Laban agrees to marriage between Rachel and Jacob, in exchange for Jacob serving him for seven years.
- On the wedding night, Laban slips in Leah, Rachel’s older sister, into the marriage, so in the morning, Jacob realizes he’s with the wrong woman! Laban agrees to give Rachel in marriage to Jacob too, in exchange for seven more years of labor.
- Jacob labors 14 years for his two wives, plus their maids.
- Leah has children. Rachel is barren. (There is clear competition between the sisters.)
- 11 sons are born to Jacob via four women.
- Jacob asks Laban’s permission to leave. Laban knows Jacob is connected to the blessings of his family and flocks, so he doesn’t want him to leave. They cut a deal. Jacob uses his knowledge of genetics to take the best of Laban’s flocks.
- The Lord tells Jacob to return to his parents’ land.
- “God has taken away your father’s livestock and given it to me” (Gen. 31:9), which is never a good conversation starter when you’re ripping off your father-in-law.
- Jacob gets set to leave.
- Rachel decides to steal her father’s household idols.
- Three days later Laban realizes that they’ve left.
- It takes Laban’s group seven days to catch up (in the hill country of Gilead).
- God tells Laban to lay off, but Laban at least wants his household gods back.
- Rachel tricks her father by blaming her period on why she won’t stand up (while sitting on the idols).
- Laban and Jacob make a pact and mark it with a pile of stones, which is what we read this morning.
And you thought you had family issues! Jacob had fled a mess of his own making with his brother Esau, only to find himself indentured in service to his uncle for the next 14 years. Laban gained a son-in-law through Jacob, but their relationship was always strained by Laban’s manipulation. It grew to the point that Jacob had to get out, and on his way out, he took all he could from Laban’s household. Both Laban and Jacob made huge messes, and one could only blame them for what they had done to each other.
A Separate Peace
The text I read this morning is the very end of this relationship. Jacob had fled with a three-day head start. Laban caught up a week later. It’s ugly. Jacob wants out. Laban doesn’t want him to go because Jacob has made him wealthy. Laban says, “Those are my daughters. Those are my flocks. Those are my children.” But he also sees that the Lord is with his swindling son-in-law, so Laban cuts one final deal with Jacob. “You go your way; I’ll go mine. We’ll never see each other again, but that’s probably the only way we’re not going to end up killing each other. Only one swindler can survive in this family!”
In the parlance of neighborhood sports from my childhood, Laban says, “I’m taking my ball and going home!” The next morning Laban gets up and says goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren. Notably, Laban says nothing to Jacob, casting a pall of sadness over this parting and making Jacob’s glad reunion with his scorned brother Esau in the coming verses that much more remarkable.
Yet the work of God is written throughout these verses. It is God who causes Jacob to prosper as he tends to Laban’s goats. It is God who tells Jacob to return home. It is God who tells Laban to let Jacob go. Even in the mess, God is at work. Despite Jacob’s schemes, despite Laban’s manipulations, God is still working out a plan. That these two individuals, after deception upon deception, could part in peace, however strained the relationship…testifies to the work of God. In spite of themselves, God is at work.
And God continued to be at work. Jacob is not done making messes. Neither are his children. Or his children’s children. Turning to Frederick Buechner once again we are reminded that, “the whole story of the Old Testament is basically the story of how for years to come they were always getting into one awful mess after another with God, with their neighbors, and with themselves” (Buechner 162).
A theme not just of Genesis but of the whole Bible is that God keeps working with us in the messes we make. All of us are schemers. All of us overreach. All of us make a fine mess out God’s good creation. Yet, it’s precisely there that God meets us. God saves us – from ourselves, yes, but also for the sake of the world.
Generations later, arising from the context of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, Jacob’s own children will continue to yearn for a unity that is only possible where God acts. Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascents, which means it would have been sung as people ascended the hill to the Temple for worship. How beautiful and interesting that worship is connected to the way we treat each other! How interesting that Jacob and Laban’s own descendants would see the sin of their forebears and yearn for something far better than their separate peace. Indeed, how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
And God continues to be at work. No matter the royal mess you’ve made of your life and relationships, God can be at work there! Are you a liar or a cheater? An alcoholic? Bitter? Mean? Broken and beaten down? It is in that space that God meets you. Mike Yaconelli, the founder of Youth Specialties, puts it so well, “I’m unfinished. I’m unfixed. And the reality is that’s where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life.”
God showed up for Jacob. God shows up throughout the Bible in the worst of times. God shows up for you. God shows up for this church, for this community, and for this world – even in the mess.