Stairway to heaven (Genesis 27 – 28; John 1.50-51) [sermon 9-24-2017]

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September 22, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for September 24, 2017. From an ongoing series: “Word and Presence: God among us in the Old Testament.”

Text is selections from Genesis 27 -28; and John 1.50-51.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.


Rebekah

Rebekah got suspicious when Isaac called Esau into his tent. She just had the feeling they were up to something. So once Esau was safely inside, she stood oh-so-quietly at the entrance of the tent. Barely even breathing. Straining her ears to listen to what Isaac was saying to his son.

This is what Rebekah overheard.

I’m old and don’t know when I will die. So now, take your hunting gear, your bow and quiver of arrows, go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Make me the delicious food that I love and bring it to me so I can eat. Then I can bless you before I die.

Isaac had been threatening to die for years. One day he’d just gone to bed and refused to get up again. But for a dying man, he sure could put away the wild venison his son Esau would bring him. Called it the delicious food that I love. Rebekah bristled a little when she remembered how it was when they first married, her and Isaac. He used to talk like that about her. That sweet thing I love, he’d say, with that naughty grin on his face. Now the only thing that ever made him smile was Esau bringing him fresh meat from the day’s hunting.

But the thing that really made her cringe was that last part. When Isaac whispered to Esau: I can bless you before I die. Rebekah knew that the father’s blessing on his sons was never done in private. Certainly not in secret! You blessed all your sons with the entire household present, to hear what the future would hold for them. And then God would honor the blessing you gave. It couldn’t be taken back.

There was only one reason Isaac would try to bless Esau secretly. He was going to try to find a way to get around the promises God had already made to her son, Jacob.

Of course, Esau was also her son; just as Jacob was also Isaac’s son. They were twins. She was married to Isaac for twenty years before they conceived. Isaac prayed every day for a son, and kept telling her to have faith—it was the same with his parents. Isaac’s father, Abraham, was 100 when Isaac was born. And his mother was 90. She’d always tell him, Well, I’m not waiting around that long! But when the child finally came, it felt like there was a battle royal going on in her growing belly. So she prayed about it. And that’s when God told her she had not one, but two sons in her womb.

Two nations are in your womb;

        two different peoples will emerge from your body.

One people will be stronger than the other;

    the older will serve the younger. (Gen. 25.23)

She never did understand why God had to give her twins. One son was all that was necessary. And Esau always complicated everything. He was such a mess. Marrying those two rowdy Canaanite women, bringing disgrace on the family. Besides, he’d already traded his birthright—the oldest son’s share of the family inheritance—to Jacob. For a bowl of lentil soup, no less! What kind of a dummy does that? She’d fussed at Jacob a little for taking advantage of his brother like that. But not too much. It only proved God was right to choose Jacob over Esau to lead the family in the next generation.

But Isaac always favored Esau, no matter what God said, and no matter how reckless he was. And now he was going to try and steal the blessing God had promised to her Jacob. No way was Rebekah going to let that happen.

Panicked, and more than just a little furious, she stormed off to find Jacob. Rebekah took her older son Esau’s favorite clothes that were in the house with her—it was laundry day, and his wives were lazy—and she put them on her younger son Jacob. But Esau was so hairy! So then she put the hide of young goats on Jacob’s arms and neck. That’s more like it, she thought. Oh, and Esau was off hunting for his dad’s supper. So she took the delicious food and the bread she had made [and] she put into her son’s hands. There, we’re all set.

When Jacob and Esau were born, Jacob came out holding Esau’s heel. Almost like he knew, even as a baby in the womb, that he was supposed to be first. He was the one God chose. He was trying to pull Esau back in, so he could take his rightful place as firstborn son. Now it was time to pull Esau’s hairy legs out from under him, for real. And for good.

Isaac

The darkness grew in Isaac when he heard that his favorite son, Esau, had traded his inheritance to his brother Jacob for a bowl of red lentils. Isaac smacked Esau upside his hairy head. Why would you do something so dumb?, he demanded. I’d been out hunting, dad! I was starving!, Esau whined. What good is a birthright to me if I’m dead from hunger? Anyway, Jacob was teasing me! He’d hold out the soup, then yank it back before I could get it in my hand! He tricked me daddy! Isaac sighed over how little Esau thought of his birthright. And the darkness clung to him like a spiderweb he’d walked into.

But the day the darkness totally engulfed Isaac was when Esau brought home those two Canaanite girls. Esau was so proud of himself. Two wives! I’m such a real man, it takes two women to satisfy me! And there they were. Blue eye shadow, ruby red lipstick. Way too much perfume. Showing off all that skin. Isaac looked over at Rebekah, who was biting her bottom lip so hard trying not to cuss he thought it might bleed. The look in her eyes screamed, Do something, Isaac!

But the darkness had overtaken him. That night he went to his tent, turned out the lights, closed his eyes to the world, and went to bed for the next eighty years. Just laying there, asking the Lord to take him. He was ready to go.

Isaac had a soft spot for Esau. It may have been because he remembered his older brother, Ishmael. The one his father Abraham sent away into the desert with nothing but a canteen of water and a pack of crackers when Isaac was still a baby. Isaac, like Jacob, had been the favored son. But he knew the extra love he got was gained at Ishmael’s expense. That absolutely haunted Isaac. He wanted to do better by Esau than his parents had done for Ishmael. But Esau just wouldn’t cooperate.

Isaac only saw one opportunity to bail Esau out now. After Isaac’s mom Sarah died, Abraham had married a second wife, Keturah. And he had loads of children with her, in his old age. Before Abraham died, he gave those other sons gifts and sent them on their ways. Esau had already sold his share of the family estate to Jacob, so Isaac had nothing to give him. Except his blessing. He’d bless Esau and send him away. Maybe being on his own would be good for him, and he’d thrive. And maybe—Just maybe, Isaac thought—I can word my blessing so Esau has a better future than the one God picked out for him.

Now all Isaac could do was wait in in the dark stillness of his tent for Esau to get back with dinner. At least that’s one thing the boy does right. Then he’d bless him, send him on his way, and go back to waiting to die.

Jacob

Jacob hadn’t really wanted to trick his old, broken-down, blind father into blessing him with Esau’s blessing. Not because he had any moral reservations about pulling tricks on people. After all, the name Jacob basically means, You’re pulling my leg. No, Jacob was mostly just afraid of getting caught. Surely even his blind old father would see through such a trick as him pretending to be Esau. When his mother came to him with the idea, he protested: What if dad figures it out? I will be cursed instead of blessed (Gen. 27.12).

But Rebekah, his mother, insisted. Your curse will be on me, my son. Just listen to me. So he did what she told him.

He could tell his father Isaac was suspicious when he came in with the food. How could you find this so quickly, my son?, Isaac asked him. Jacob had to think fast. His father was a religious man, so Jacob played up to that. The Lord your God led me right to it, he said. Wow, I’m good at this!, Jacob thought to himself.

But he really panicked when his dad started sniffing at Esau’s clothes, which hung loosely on him; and feeling on his arms, with the goat skin tied around them. He really thought he’d blown it when he heard his father mutter, The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the arms are Esau’s arms. He realized he’d forgotten to talk like his brother—like a redneck.

Somehow, his father couldn’t even tell the difference between the goat his mother had hastily prepared and the wild venison Esau usually brought him. God may not have led really led me to find that food, but he seems to be leading me right through this con. I’m really going to pull this off!, Jacob thought. Only God could trick dad into mistaking mom’s cooking for Esau’s!

After Isaac had gobbled up his dinner (it grossed Jacob out a little to watch his blind old father eat), and slurped up his glass of merlot, he blessed Jacob. Jacob grinned a little as he listened to his father’s blessing:

May the nations serve you,

        may peoples bow down to you.

Be the most powerful man among your brothers,

        and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.

    Those who curse you will be cursed,

        and those who bless you will be blessed. (Gen. 27.29)

So his mother was right. Dad was trying to steal his blessing and give it to Esau. But now … the blessing was spoken over him. God had to honor it. It couldn’t be taken back. Besides, this was what God wanted, anyway.

As Jacob left Isaac’s tent, he could see Esau off in the distance. Coming back from his hunting trip. Something occurred to him suddenly that he hadn’t thought of yet: When Esau finds out what I just did, he’s going to kill me.

So Jacob went back to his tent and started packing. Just in case.

Esau

Esau proudly brought the dinner he’d killed and cooked himself into his father’s tent. Let my father sit up and eat from his son’s game, he said as he walked in, so that you may bless me.

But Isaac asked: Who are you?

This shook up Esau. Isaac was old, blind, and had pretty much given up. But he never was senile. I’m your son, your oldest son, Esau, he said—shocked that his father would have to ask his favorite son who he was.

Isaac’s voice trembled as he told Esau someone else had already brought him dinner, and he’d already blessed whoever it was. He sputtered out the words: I blessed him, and he will stay blessed!

Esau began to wail and cry and beg: Bless me! Me too, my father! That’s when blind old Isaac opened his eyes and saw everything clearly. Your brother has already come deceitfully and has taken your blessing, he said.

Esau shot back: No wonder he’s called the Leg-Puller (because that’s more or less what the name Jacob means). He’s pulled my legs out from under me twice now! First he took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing.

Deep down, Esau knew his father couldn’t un-bless Jacob. The father’s blessing was a serious matter, with people and with God. No taksies-backsies. But he asked, pathetically: Do you really have only one blessing, Father? Bless me too, my father!

It took Isaac a little while to think of a blessing, since he’d pretty much given everything to Jacob. Including making Esau his servant. So Isaac said:

Now, you will make a home

    far away from the olive groves of the earth,

        far away from the showers of the sky above.

You will live by your sword;

        you will serve your brother.

But when you grow restless,

        you will tear away his harness

        from your neck. (Gen. 27.39-40)

It was the only thing Isaac had left to give. Both he and God had now said Esau would have to play second-fiddle to Jacob. But no one had said he had to serve his brother forever.

Esau left his father’s tent with his face burning with tears of rage. He marched right over to Rebekah’s tent and shouted: I know you had something to do with this! You always loved him more! Well, just you wait. When dad dies, I’m going to kill that thieving son of yours! Then I’ll get it all. He can’t have my birthright if he’s dead! I won’t have to serve him if I kill him!

Rebekah knew Esau meant it, too. As soon as Esau crawled into his tent to sulk with his wives—they’d probably be drunk and rowdy soon—she snuck into Jacob’s tent, where he was already packing. She told him to go stay with her family in another town until Esau cooled off.

That’s when she began to feel a little guilty for putting poor old Isaac through all this. She told him she was sending Jacob back to her hometown to find a wife. I really can’t stand to see another one of our sons marry a Canaanite! But they both knew why Jacob was really going away.

God

The sun was setting as God watched a man making his way through a lonely stretch of wilderness. When the sun went down, Jacob stopped, put a rock under his head for a pillow, and went to sleep.

God sighed as he thought, They’re all kind of like that, really. Scheming, fighting, lying, hurting each other. Getting caught. Running away. Feeling all alone. Trying to grab and snatch and steal blessings that I was always just going to give them …

God felt a pang of regret. Jacob reminded him of the first humans, Adam and Eve. How they tried to steal a blessing he was already going to give them. In due time. How they ran off and hid from him in the bushes. It was tragic. It was pathetic. And yet—those were still his children. And even in their disobedience they were still kind of adorable in their vulnerability. Jacob reminded him so much of them …

God also felt a stab of regret for Esau. Even in the womb, Esau reminded God of Cain. Reactive, not proactive. Prone to a bad temper. Couldn’t stand to see anybody else in the spotlight. God was relieved Rebekah was wise enough to send Jacob away before Esau killed him, like Cain killed his brother Abel. But Jacob … Jacob wasn’t like Abel. Jacob was the kind of man who’d fight dirty to survive. That’s why God had chosen him, even in the womb. He could see both their futures—Esau’s and Jacob’s—written in their DNA.

God would take good care of Esau, so when Jacob finally came back, Esau would forgive his brother and embrace him. God knew Jacob would need to know what forgiveness felt like.

God also knew he’d need to pay Jacob back for deceiving his blind father and stealing a blessing from his brother. That’s why, on his wedding night, as Jacob lay in the darkness of his tent; his wife Rachel’s older sister Leah dressed up like her and fooled Jacob into consummating the marriage with her. I’m sure God chuckled just a little at his own perfect justice.

But in the meantime, what Jacob needed was grace. A blessing from God he didn’t ask for, didn’t deserve, and most of all—hadn’t conned out of anybody.

So God put a vision in Jacob’s sleeping head of a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. God had called Jacob’s grandfather Abraham from the rubble of a place called Babel, where a generation of humans had tried to build a stairway to heaven. Now here was the real thing. God even let dreaming Jacob see a sliver of God’s glory, standing on top of the staircase. And he promised to protect Jacob on every step of his journey.

Jacob woke up the next morning with fear and trembling, not quite knowing how to handle this thing called grace. The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it, he stammered. It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven. And that’s the very moment he began to realize that the God he’d only known as his father’s God and his grandfather’s God had chosen to be his God, too.

But how could Jacob have ever known what God really showed him that night? Jacob was but one step in the staircase, one rung on the ladder, that would lead to Abraham’s Son—and God’s—Jesus. Jesus is the stairway that has joined and will join heaven and earth again. Jesus is God’s grace to bring every Adam and Eve, every Cain and Abel, every Isaac and Rebekah, every Jacob and Esau who will climb on him back home to Father God.

Through Jesus, God has spoken. Through Jesus, God is with us. Amen.

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