One of the on-going questions we have been looking at is “what does success look like?” As we have journeyed through Genesis we have seen many examples of people trying to get their own way. Sometimes they get what they want like Lot’s daughters were “successful” in getting pregnant by getting their dad drunk and having incest with him. Yet long term the descendants of Lot’s Daughters were the Moabites and the Amanites, warring tribes with Israel, a history of conflict and bloodshed (Joshua 3:29 and 2 Samuel 8.2). Jacob conned his dad into receiving his brothers blessing, but ended up all alone and on the run with his brother trying to kill him. He may have won in his ongoing rivalry with his brother, Esau, but it cost him everything. It was a hollow and empty victory. Laban ended up successful in getting both of his daughters married off, but ends up all alone, separated from his children and his grandchildren and without his livilhood -his flocks. His daughter Rachel steals his idols, a picture of without family, without money and without God/faith. We will all change the world, we will all make history, but the question is are we changing things for the better or worse? Do our actions coincide with the plan and call of God? Too often we fall foul of the belief that we know better than God of how things work out. We believe we know better than God of how success looks. Yet obedience to God’s purposes is ultimately best for us and for everyone else too, in some circumstances it takes trust to believe that when the Kingdom of God advances everyone benefits. The consequences of our sin is that although some people may benefit short term, often other people end up suffering from the result of our sinful choices, sometimes these are tragically far-reaching, with perpetual negative cycles going on for generations upon generations. We need to ask ourselves what are the consequences on other people of us getting our own way? Who pays the cost for our success? Our choices have consequences -whether we see them or not. For example: In our world we can be successful by getting lots of cheap stuff, but the real price is paid by the workers exploited in sweatshops. Are we walking in step with God whose plans and purposes are loving, good and gracious… or going our own way sowing seeds of wilfulness, rebellion and disobedience to his plan of love? We all have legacies -but are they marked by making the world a better or worse place? Will we hear the words “well done good and faithful servant” or “why do you call me Lord, Lord, and yet do not do what I say?” We might get our own way and seem successful, we may appear to have everything and yet in fact have nothing. Let’s choose a different type of success that has nothing to do with getting our own way but instead is the fruitfulness of obedience with the consequences of the fruit of the Kingdom.
As our story continues we see the ever wiley Jacob making a deal with his uncle Laban, Jacob would keep all the animals that were sent speckled and Laban could keep the rest.
Yet, Jacob, ensures that it is only the speckled animals that mate causing in a short time for the whole flock to be speckled.
As I thought about Jacob playing with the flocks gene pool I began to think of what we do now in the present changes the future. In the words of the great Christian pioneer Catherine Booth: “to change the future you must interrupt the present”.
Yet changing the present is not always easy and takes bravery to intervene -and without intervention history repeats itself, the status quo is maintained, a damaging cycles repeat themselves like a broken record.
There is an adage that says “if you always do what you always have, you will always get what you have already got”.
What of us? Are we history makers? Are we people of transformation? Bringers of positive change for Christ?
Are we partnering with the Holy Spirit to make the world a better place, which means change.
Yet for many change -and being a bringer of change- is a scary and uncomfortable place, nor is unfamiliarity an easy place to be, it takes bravery and courage to intervene and bring in lasting change, to hold our nerve and to see a new and different life emerge.
Whilst struggling in parish life I came across this meme: “concentrate on building the new rather than fighting the old” -in our case led to planting three expressions of Church, one on an estate, one in a back room of a pub and one in a local youth centre. Changing the DNA through new birth and life.
Perhaps a challenge for us all to look if we are fighting unwinnable fights rather than seeing the hand of God birthing new opportunities?
One of my heroes is Robert Riekes who started the Sunday School Movement, who was working in prison reform and felt his work was futile in changing lives and transforming society, he prayed and looked out of the window and saw a child, and realised that to change a society you need to start with its young people.
Perhaps there was a young person you could mentor and bless?
Another story came into my mind as I was writing this was some pictures a fellow pastor saw when he went to do a mission in a church in a former communist country,they were still allowed to meet but to do mission or youth work and every year the congregation dwindled and aged, and their photos showed this, but now they are prioritising the right things and their church is growing numerically and becoming younger.
I believing that God is seeking to bring to birth a new thing in our time, are we going to partner with him to be agents of change to see the spiritual DNA of our world changed as we see the Kingdom of God break in here in our place and time as I. Heaven.
We thought yesterday of Leah, the sister of Rachel, who was swapped or substituted for her beneath the veil and married off to Jacob.
We thought of Leah’s pain of feeling unwanted and second best, and reminded us that in God’s eyes we are always his first choice: “loved with an everlasting love” and “precious and honoured in his sight” -”see how the Father has lavished his love upon us that we maybe called children of God, because that beloved is who we are!”
Yet today I want to think of Jacob, he thinks he is marrying the love of his life, only to discover he’s been tricked (a case of reaping what you sow?!) he has married the other sister and must work for his uncle for a further seven years in order to win her hand.
Have you ever felt like you were making good progress towards goal only to feel back at square one? Like in life’s game of snakes and ladders you’ve got almost to the end and now you’ve slid down a snake and are back at square one? What do you do? How do you feel?
Disappointment can kill something inside of us, or wound us very deeply. For some disappointment can stop us trying again and settling for what we have rather than what we want, downsizing our dreams, limiting our expectations, crushing our hopes. Jacob could have stormed off and made a life with Leah, spending the rest of his days in a pub moaning about the ‘one that got away’.
Yet, even though he was devastated and disappointed he did not give up. He endured and persevered and worked for a further seven years for Rachel (in those days people had more than one wife but is never something condoned by scripture!).
Jacob refused to give in and be a victim of his uncle/father in law’s schemes, nor let victimhood define him and his identity.
Yet imagine just how tough it must have been to get up and go back to work for another seven years, and the courage it took to keep going.
Also, although things have not turned out as Jacob had wanted he still did the right thing in his culture and was a good husband to Leah and saved her from shame treating her as his wife, even after he married Rachel (what an ethical dilemma). I think we see our true character in how we treat those around us when things go wrong. It’s easy to be nice when things are going well, and everyone agrees with us, but who we are under pressure, adversity and disappointment says a lot about us.
We often want a life of mountain-top joys but often our greatest and most significant growth can happen in the valleys. The rosebud gains its fragrance from it’s time squeezed and compressed in the dark and pressure of bud before it blossoms.
Yet just as Jacob discovered with disappointment there is a choice in our response, do we allow challenges to make us better or just bitter. Is the discouragement a spur to try again or is does it floor us and take us out the game!
So what challenges, disappointments and discouragements are you facing? Are you allowing your loving God to work to heal and use this internal rubble to build afresh within you? Allow God to stand you afresh in your feet, lift your head, and cause you to run again the race set before you following him.
Whenever I take a wedding rehearsal I have to tell the bride that legally she had to remove her veil so that we can see it really is her. Clearly no such rule in the culture where Jacob lived.
Genesis 29, shows Jacob had worked for his uncle Laban for seven years so he could marry his younger daughter Rachel. Yet Laban has swapped his daughters and put his older daughter Leah under the veil and Jacob marries the wrong sister. I feel so sorry for Leah in this story. She’s overlooked probably living her life in the shadow of her sister Rachel (Rachel clearly known as the pretty one, whereas Leah is written off as having “weak eyes”).
Have you ever had to live in someone else’s shadow? It is a horrible place of negative comparisons, it is devaluing and dehumanising.
Leah is then betrayed by her dad.
Imagine how she must have felt when Jacob pulled back the veil and saw her but wanted her sister?
Have you ever felt like you were second choice? Maybe you didn’t get that job, were passed over for promotion, a partner chooses to go off with someone else other than you? It can be a heartbreaking blow that knocks our self confidence.
The Bible calls us his Church, the bride of Christ, and yet I worry that most of us feel a bit like Leah and when the veil is pulled back by her new husband, we feel like a disappointment, we know what we are not, our flaws and our failures, and perhaps we wish we were a bit more like somebody else.
Yet, unlike Jacob, God sees us all as we truly are -even seeing at our worst- and knowing all we would want to hide, and yet does not reject us, but loves and accepts us. Indeed this is what the cross is all about, taking all that is unholy and sinful in us, and because of Jesus beauty and purity transferred to us by his death and resurrection we have nothing to fear from the gaze of God, looking at us like a bridegroom before his bride -looking at us utterly adored, desired, wanted and valuable.
Yet too often many of us probably feel like Leah, interior and unwanted, and although the truth of God’s awesome love for us we probably heard many times, we need to allow our restoring, renewing and repairing God to heal our hearts and minds from the negative experiences that have left us with real scars.
One of the great promises of scripture I cling onto (in fact this verse lived in my wallet during a really tough time in a previous parish) which talks of God “restoring the years the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25).
As we looked at yesterday we see God blessing his creation with the gift of rest and Sabbath. Something we have lost sight of in our busy and crazy world.
Yet as I began to explore the concept of work in a world before the fall. I found myself asking if we were gifted with rest then it seems clear that there must be something we rest from some form of work?
The idea of work as a gift my seem hard to grasp for those perhaps struggling in a job they hate which they do to make ends meet.
Yet, if we are permitted to dream around God’s original design plan, work was meant as an outlet for all the gifts, skills, talents and abilities we each have that make us unique, and make the world a better and more beautiful place for the benefit of all to the glory of God.
Scripture tells us we are made in the image and likeness of a God who worked and a God who rested. A God who set rhythms within his creation -night and day and the changing of the seasons- also placed work and rest within his world.
We are made in God’s image, filled with creativity and imagination, and placed within a world full of rich resources, opportunities and possibilities.
God delights when we interact, co-create and re-create, with his creation -indeed when we do this we are most like our creator and are most fully alive.
One of the Early Church Father, Irenaeus,spoke of “the glory of God is a person fully alive”. What is it we feel most alive doing?
When I left my job and took a step out of work for a while, it was really tough, I felt useless, unproductive and generally depressed, it was demoralising and dehumanising.
Yet, for many work is something we look through purely through the lenses of economics -what I am paid to do- rather than in terms of vocation -what I am called to do, and what I contribute towards my community- which is so much broader than just thinking about paid employment- but rather is about who we are: our dreams, talents, skills and gifts, the us at our best, us flourishing for the glory of God and the blessing and betterment of those around us.
Often we think of our lives split between the spiritual and the secular, often denigrating our work -where we often spend most of our time- yet it all matters to God, who sees no such divide (indeed God becoming human in the incarnation tore this mythical divide from the top to the bottom). Yet us enjoying being my us at our best I believe brings joy to God’s heart.
Scripture used the phrase of work “the fruit of our labours” and governments talk of making a positive contribution to society. Ideally our vocations as Christians ought to be in someway making the world a better place.
In our work, our rest and our play we can live it all as worship to God, knowing every bit of our lives matters to him.
The monk Brother Lawrence challenge us all to discover the presence of God with us in everything, even the most menial and mundane of work.
As we think of our lives harmonized with leading of the spirit of God, integrated together, working and resting as we habitually dwell in the presence of God, we see his Kingdom grow and advance.
In the great narrative of God in scripture we begin in a garden and end in a city, where all us redeemed, a picture of the progression of glory unto glory rather a static immovable perfection that we cannot join in with, participate in, and enjoy and celebrate with.
So, if God rejoices over us and created work to bless us and those around us bringing him glory, what is a Christian view of work?
I remember the day I was ordained, still in my twenties, it was a wonderful celebration, and I had great hopes and dreams of transforming the world for Christ and with Christ.
Perhaps I might -as a young passionate idealist- have had something of a swagger?
Now twelve years later I think the swagger has been replaced by a limp from numerous battles and internal scars from conflict.
Recently I was asked to write about being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, but also suffering with depression. I wrote that many of who follow Jesus are hobbling, limping and sometimes even crawling, indeed I think most Christians will finish the race looking battered and bruised, yet what matters is keeping on keeping on, continuing to follow Jesus when the swagger and the sprint is a limit crawl.
This passage in Genesis has been one I have revisited many times, Jacob is a complete chancer, a guy with a perpetual swagger, he is on the eve of meeting his brother Esau again, this encounter could result in his death, Esau feels defrauded and wants revenge. Perhaps this chancers luck has run out? He’s reached the end of himself, he’s out of swagger!
Jacob is in inner turmoil, but is embodied in a real and actual struggle.
Jacob ends up wrestling with a man who fights him all night, again this man seems to be either and angel or a pre-jesus-incarnation of God.
For those of us who have prayed and sought things from God we probably can identify with this picture of wrestling with God all night, and with Abraham’s arguing with God and pleading for the cities of sodom and gomorrah.
The struggle lasts all night, as I thought about this, I thought if Jacob a wriggly and slimy character coming to a place of surrender and submission. Here it seems Jacob stops running and faces his brother.
There are times in life where we need to stop running from things and turn and face them.
How can you put something behind you until you have first faced it?
A continued theme I have tried to explore is “what does success look like?” -perhaps this story shows us that in God’s economy success is our surrender to him.
Yet, we don’t face it alone and in our own strength, at the end of Jacob’s wrestle with God he says “I won’t let you go until you bless me”.
A picture of hanging on to God’s desire to bless us, holding onto his goodness and mercy.
And God’s blessing leaves him with a limp, a reminder of his need for God and his own fallibility.
Later St. Paul talked of boasting in his weakness so that Christ’s strength maybe shown, echoes of this here.
Frequently scripture reminds us that God opposes the proud but lifts the humble.
Brendan Manning says in his book “the ragamuffin gospel” that he doesn’t trust a Pastor without a limp, although he used the wonderful phrase “a victorious limp”.
Yet too often even in Christ’s Church we value the swagger over the limp, and fail to see that we are all broken people, wounded healers, beggars telling other beggars where to find bread.
So, let’s embrace our victorious limps and shun the swagger of the world.