One of my favourite song-writers, Paul Kelly, teamed up with aboriginal singer and song-writer Kevin Carmody a few years ago to write a very powerful song about Aboriginal Land rights. It was called “From little things, big things grow.”
This could be a theme song for the life of Abraham.
The beginning of Genesis chapter 25, which you may all be thankful we did not read out loud, gives some of the substance to this. The genealogy is expanded in Chapter 36 and its purpose seems to be to provide an explanation of the origins of the nations living around Israel. But it is also concerned with showing just how small the beginning was.
Now you all thought Abraham had just two sons, didn’t you? Ishmael and Isaac are the ones we all remember, but we are reminded in this chapter that after Sarah died Abraham got himself another wife and fathered six more boys – who knows how many girls along the way. And while Isaac had just two boys, Jacob & Esau, Ishmael fathered a dozen sons, as did Jacob, and Esau had six sons.
Not a bad start towards progeny outnumbering the stars in the sky.
The selected readings for today could be gathered together under the theme “How wonderful and mysterious are the ways of God”.
One of the things we heard about last week was that Abraham thought it was important to have a wife for Isaac from among his relatives. This was not to be the pathway to marital harmony – and this idea is reiterated in the story of Jacob going to Laban to find himself a wife. This is something that the descendants of Abraham struggled with over and over – even Esau recognises it and looks for a wife from among his relatives. But it still creates trouble.
But let’s focus on this story. What is there here for us to notice today?
THE CRISIS OF BARRENNESS
It is interesting that Rebekah is afflicted with the same problem as Sarah – she was unable to conceive. We might think of this as a biological issue, but the writer is not interested in biology. He is interested in theology. “Where is God and what is God doing in this story?” That is a theological question.
This theological crisis drives Isaac to prayer. He recognises that he and Rebekah do not have between them the resources necessary or the capacity to generate their own future. A future would only be possible by God’s continuing action.
The future that is thus opened up for Isaac is possible only because YHWH gives good gifts in answer to prayer.
THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST AND THE LAST FIRST
What did all you instincts for good family life feel when you read about Isaac preferring Esau and Rebekah preferring Jacob? It is not going to end well, is it?
While many people think this story is laying down the foundation for the concept of Israel as the “elect” people of God, I can’t help thinking that even in that concept is a hint of the wonderful Gospel idea that Jesus got into trouble for – the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
But there is a really interesting twist in this – and I’m still not sure of what to make of it. Jacob takes precedence over his older twin brother by treachery, and his mother colludes with him in this treachery a bit later on in chapter 27.
When I think of the idea of the first shall be last and the last shall be first, I get the sense that the proud will be brought down and the humble raised up. Yet as we look over the story of Esau and Jacob in its entirety Jacob seems to be the proud and ambitious one and Esau seems to be the humble one – just look at how gracious Esau is in Chapter 32 and 33.
However we might like to explain all this, there remains the sense that God works things out in most unexpected ways – and probably despite the failings of those who end up being the agents of God’s blessings for all. When you look at the whole of Jacob’s story it is a wonder, sometimes, why on earth God chose him. But then, so many of the heroes of the faith had feet of clay.
Maybe this is enough for us to take from the story today.
A long time ago, I was grappling with a choice that I thought could take me “out of God’s will for me life.” This had been drummed into me as something of great peril for me, if I chose wrongly. I was committed to going to seminary in about a year but then heard about two missionary-teacher positions that Eira and I could have filled. But I was afraid that taking the teaching position might deflect me from going to seminary after all.
My dad showed some remarkable wisdom then that I have relied on now for many years. He said that rather than facing such a black and white choice, we were often faced with a choice between two good things. He then said : “God will bless you whichever you choose – even if you later think you chose wrong.”
Time and again we read stories of our heroes in the faith who go about achieving what they believe God has called them to in less than the best ways. Yet God’s grace is sufficient to enable them to bring blessings despite their failings.
Now this is encouraging to me. I hope it is to you. We mostly recognise, at least privately, that we are often abysmal failures at being what God wants us to be. Yet again and again, God chooses to “overlook” those failures and bless what we do in his name and for the sake of his glory – not ours.