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.
Have you ever done something you have almost instantly regretted? Said “yes” when you should have said “no” (or “no” when you should have said “yes”)? -And probably the reason we made a bad choice was some pressure or influence that we secummed too.
Reading this passage in the cold light of day it seems crazy to give up your birthright for a bowl of stew! Yet pressure makes sane people do crazy things!
Esau is under pressure and is being ‘played’ -exploited- by an expert manipulator, his brother Jacob.
Jacob catches Esau exhausted from hunting and starving hungry. Esau the hunter becomes Jacob’s prey. Jacob knows he is vulnerable and his guard is down.
We are all vulnerable to make really bad choices when we are under pressure.
The number of times I have heard people say “I’m never drinking again’ but the following weekend comes, the pressure comes and the cycle continues!
Interestingly Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous warn of the dangers we can be to ourselves when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely & Tired (HALT) most likely to fall back to a lifestyle they will -like Esau- regret later.
How do we respond to pressure? How well do we know ourselves, our triggers and blind-spots?
If we are serious about following Jesus we are choosing the path that is narrow and steep, a choice to swim against the tide.
The unholy trinity of sin, the world and the devil will put all sorts of pressures on us to disrupt and destroy our walk with God.
How easily are we manipulated or diverted from God’s call, and what have we put in place to keep us on track.
Yet I believe self awareness, wisdom and spiritual maturity are vital components that need to work together if we are serious about following Jesus rather than being stretchered off the pitch.
How easily are we manipulated, wrapped around someone else’s finger, and allowing them to push our buttons’?
Are we easily led? If, so, who is leading us? Is it the holy spirit of God or another influence?
We might have good intentions to follow Jesus but so often fall at the first hurdle.
All of us can intend to live wonderful Christian lives in Church on a Sunday night but what about Monday morning in work when the pressure kicks in?
It is easy to be ‘going for it with God’ in a pressure free week at a Christian festival but what about the other pressurised 51 weeks a year?
One of my favourite hymns is “O Jesus I have promised” with the prayer in the final verse “O let me see thy footmarks and in them plant my own, my hope is to follow duly in thy strength alone”. To follow Christ we need Christ’s strength and help.
I wonder too if Esau had packed better provisions -and didn’t come back starving hungry- whether he’d be as vulnerable to Jacob’s cunning wiles? Practical responses can help us avoid poor choices.
Or perhaps if Esau was accompanied by wise friends they could have dissuade him from this catastrophic choice. For me my accountable friendships have ‘saved me from myself’ and the bad decisions I was about to leap into.
My prayer is that for all of us our story has a different ending to that of Esau selling our birthright for a worthless bowl of stew.
Jesus told a parable in Matthew 25 about when we feed the hungry we feed him, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers , for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrew.13.2).
In Genesis 18 we read: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”
The Lord appearing to Abraham as three strangers, and Abraham responds by offering immediate hospitality to the three men, inviting them to rest under a tree and preparing a feast for them. Indeed scripture does not elaborate on God appearing to Abraham in this way but instead the conversation they have is quoted as “the Lord says”.
In Abraham’s culture offering hospitality to strangers was of supreme importance -and not to do so would be considered shameful,, which is so very different from our culture that believes ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and we treat the stranger with suspicion, although superficially friendly, often we hold people at arm’s length, maybe chatting over the fence but never invited across the threshold!
Indeed much of our western relationships are filled with fear, the phrase “stranger danger” is drummed into us from childhood, despite the fact that normally the people most likely to harm you are the people we already know. I prefer to think (glass half full?) of a stranger as being a friend I’ve not met yet.
In my previous parish we planted a church “all souls -the idea of a church where everyone was welcome- and our tag-line was “where strangers become friends and friends meet with Jesus”.
In meeting strangers we encounter God, the interruptions and disturbances to our normal routines are often those moments of breakthrough and growth.
In encountering new people, people not like us we are changed -and often vice versa, yet too often we raise the walls in inhospitality not allowing ourselves to be known or be changed, the hospitality of the heart allows us to be known, and to be transformed as we grow together, and in growing together we are changed.
Too often we mistake polite greeting and acknowledgement superficial friendliness for hospitality -a pale insipid counterfeit of the real thing-. A friend moved to a new area and tried to find a new church community and said: “I don’t want to go to a friendly Church, but rather one I can make friends in”. In this statement he unearthed the nub of what hospitality is and is not, a real community wanting to share life (and food) with you rather than just empty smokes a polite chit chat.
Within the Church I believe one of our greatest obstacles to mission, discipleship and Kingdom living is the way we can keep ourselves to ourselves, live in hermetically sealed bubbles and operate in impenetrable cliques, we never allow strangers to meaningfully interact with us which leaves the church and the world depleted, the work of Christ frustrated, depriving us of meeting with God through other people.
Our Churches have become like meals in posh restaurants where everyone had a place specially set for them how they like it, but impenetrable for those who feel uninvited, where as a more Biblical model of Church is like a old fashioned feast with long tables and benches where we can say “budge up there is room for another one”.
Hospitality begins, I believe, is about a heart attitude than welcomes the stranger and treats them like a brother or sister, as ultimate the message of Genesis is that is who we are, brothers and sisters who belong together.
At an Alpha Course in my last parish a woman said of her journey of faith ‘I didn’t mind Jesus in the porch but realized now I have to let him into the rest of the house”.
At a concert the best possible backstage pass has AAA on it which means access all areas, welcome to go anywhere! Yet the only people to get such a pass are VIP’s and only the people closest to the stars get this privileged access, most of us plebs have to wait by the stage door.
Yet the call of Christ is to welcome him into every part of our lives, giving him privileged access all areas. Yet Jesus says on one occasion picking up a little child -powerless and without influence unable to return or reciprocate the favour- and says “anyone who welcomes such as these welcomes me”.
Some of us are good at “hospitality” when networking, prioritising those we can get something out of, cosying up to power, valuing people for what we can get out of them… Yet, the hospitality of Christ is to give without the expectation of reward/return or reciprocating, where hospitality is given without favour of bias (although perhaps a bias towards the poor, marginalised, disenfranchised and the ostracised).
What we think of Christ is reflected in how we treat other people, especially the weak and the vulnerable, the broken, hurting, lonely and the stranger.
Our cultural reticence or ‘dis-ease’ to embrace the costly and risky challenge of opening ourselves to one another can also extend to our relationship with God, our inhospitality to others will spill out into an inhospitality to the Spirit of God.
Hospitality when we say to someone make yourself at home here, just as when we surrender to the Holy Spirit and welcome him into our lives and say to him “make yourself at home”.
The idea of inviting Christ in, offering hospitality and fellowship is what the famous passage where the risen Christ says: “behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them” (Rev.3.20). The artist Holman Hunt painted this verse in pictorial form with Jesus knocking at a door (the door representing our hearts and lives) but the handle is on the other side of the door, in other words the choice, the invitation and response, is ours, it is up to us.
The idea of Christ himself coming and eating with us is not just a nice piece of phraseology, but for the Jewish culture sharing food together with someone is the most intimate display of friendship, to eat together is a display of acceptance and an end to hostilities, it is somewhat sacramental displaying being welcomed into the family.
Hospitality is a welcome into the family, it is making oneself vulnerable and is an action of both reaching out and welcoming in.
In sharing food together we grow together as we meet each other with our guard down, in eating together there is vulnerability as we come to eat unguarded and our hand free from weapons. As we share food with one another it is a sign and symbol of trust that the other person is not trying to poison you and they are trusted to eat with you. Animals will not eat with their predators -it would be suicide too.
Communion is at its heart a family meal together with Jesus before we turned it into a religious ceremony with the elements distilled into some form of religious canapé. It is symbol of surrender, trust, restoration and reconciliation with God and with one another.
Yet too often we downgrade hospitality to a cup of cheap and nasty coffee and a stale biscuit, which robs us from truly seeing hospitality in all its beauty.
I wonder if a celebrity were to come to our home, or to our Church, whether we would make an effort sprues the place up, bake a cake and go the extra-mile? In the Church we planted by the skate park in Bristol we had many local kids in and they ate loads of the food we had and often left again soon after, someone said “why don’t you just buy cheap biscuits for the kids?” my reply was that in welcoming and valuing these young people we are also welcoming Jesus, the King of Kings, and we are not going to fob him off with cheap and nasty but rather we will give the best we have.
So, a call to sit and eat with Christ, and with each other, learning to lead a life of hospitality as we follow Jesus.