‘God Meant it for Good’ (a sermon on Genesis chapters 37-50)

Our Old Testament reading for this morning is part of the story of Joseph – not Joseph the father of Jesus, but Joseph one of the twelve sons of Jacob, way back at the beginning of Israel’s history, probably around eighteen hundred years before Christ. The story of Joseph takes up the last 14 chapters of the book of Genesis and it’s well worth a read; I’m going to summarize it this morning and then draw some lessons from it.

Genesis tells us that the patriarch Jacob had two wives and two concubines, which of course was the way things were done in those days! With these four women he had a total of twelve sons and at least one daughter. Most of them were the children of his wife Leah, but she was not his favourite. The wife he loved the most was Leah’s sister Rachel, and Rachel had waited a long time for her children. Joseph was her firstborn, and she died in childbirth with her second son, Jacob’s baby, Benjamin.

Jacob apparently never learned any psychology, because not only did he have a favourite wife, but he also had a favourite son, Rachel’s son Joseph, and he let the rest of the family know it in no uncertain terms. Not surprisingly, knowing he was his father’s favourite turned young Joseph’s head a little, and he enjoyed playing on his favourite status with his brothers. He was apparently quite a dreamer, and enjoyed recounting his dreams. On one occasion he dreamt that he and his brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in the field, and all the other eleven sheaves stood up and bowed to his sheaf. Another time he dreamt he was a star in the sky, and the sun and moon and eleven stars all bowed down to his star.

Jacob was troubled by his son’s attitude but he didn’t seem to realize he was contributing to it. For instance, he spent a lot of time working on a coat for Joseph to wear. We call it ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’ although the original Hebrew word simply means ‘a long sleeved coat’. But the point is that he was the only one who got such a coat from his father. Not surprisingly, the other brothers became more and more jealous of him, and their jealousy simmered, waiting for an appropriate moment to boil over.

The moment came when ten of the brothers were away keeping their father’s sheep. Jacob sent Joseph to check on them, and they seized their chance. Their first plan was to kill him, but Judah, brother number four, talked them out of it. Instead, they sold him as a slave to some slave traders. They took his coat from him, dipped it into the blood of a goat, and took it back and showed it to their father. Not surprisingly, Jacob believed his son had been killed, and he was stricken with grief.

But Joseph was not dead. The slave traders took him down to Egypt where he was sold into the household of an Egyptian soldier named Potiphar, a captain in the king’s guard. The author of Genesis tells us ‘The LORD was with Joseph, and he became a successful man’ (Genesis 39:2). Apparently he was a hard worker, and before too long he was a sort of butler, in charge of the running of Potiphar’s house. And eventually he came to the attention of Potiphar’s wife who had something of a roving eye. She tried to seduce him, but he refused; he pointed out his master’s trust in him and said, “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).

The lady in question tried several times to get Joseph to go to bed with her, and he always refused. Eventually she got so annoyed that she told her husband Joseph had tried to rape her. Potiphar threw Joseph out of his household and had him imprisoned. Here the cycle repeated itself. Once again, Joseph’s natural charm and ability asserted itself, and before too long he was the jailer’s right hand man. ‘The chief jailer paid no heed to anything that was in Joseph’s care, because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made it prosper’ (39:23).

After some time, the Pharaoh – or king – of Egypt threw two of his officials into prison. One night they both had dreams, and the next morning they were troubled by them. In those days everyone accepted that dreams were significant and needed to be interpreted, and the two officials wanted someone to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph noticed their distress and said, “Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me” (40:8). So Joseph interpreted their dreams and his interpretation turned out to be correct; one of the officials was pardoned and restored to his job, and the other was hanged.

One night a couple of years later the king of Egypt himself had two dreams. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows coming up out of the river. They were followed by seven scrawny cows, who proceeded to eat up the fat ones. In the second dream the king saw seven good ears of wheat on a stalk, which were immediately swallowed up by seven thin ears. The king was disturbed by this dream, and when he told the official who had been in prison with Joseph, the official remembered Joseph’s interpretation of his own dream and recommended him to the king.

So the king sent for Joseph. Joseph told him that God was informing him of the future. Egypt was about to go through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, so it would be prudent to make some preparations now for the famine. The king agreed, and proceeded to appoint Joseph to his government and put him in charge of making the preparations!

Sure enough, the land went through seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, but because Joseph had been storing up food, Egypt was okay. Canaan, however, was not, and Canaan was where the rest of Joseph’s family was still living. Eventually Joseph’s father Jacob sent the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into slavery down to Egypt to buy food. They saw Joseph there but for some reason they didn’t recognize him; we can speculate that he was twenty-two years older and shaved and dressed as an Egyptian, but we don’t know for sure what the reason was.

Joseph, however, recognized his brothers, and he proceeded to put them through a series of tests to find out if they had changed at all. He accused them of being spies, and when they denied it and told him about their family, he arrested one of them, Simeon, and told the others to go back and bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had stayed with their father in Canaan. Then he would know that they were telling the truth. They did this; on their next trip they brought Benjamin. Joseph contrived to frame Benjamin for stealing something from him, and when he arrested him, the other brothers all protested that their father would die if he lost Benjamin too. Judah even offered to take Benjamin’s place and live as Joseph’s slave.

At that point Joseph couldn’t keep it up any more. He made himself known to his brothers and there was an emotional reconciliation. He told them to go back, get the rest of the family and bring them down to Egypt where there was plenty of food for them all. So they went and got Jacob and the rest of the family, and all of them came down to Egypt. The king gave them land in Goshen, the best part of Egypt, and so Jacob and his family were saved from starvation and the future of the people of Israel was saved too.

What does this story have to say to us today? Let me suggest three things.

First, suffering doesn’t mean God is punishing us for our sins. Now we might say that Joseph’s conduct at the beginning of the story, when he was lording it over his brothers and enjoying his favoured status, was simply asking for trouble. Nonetheless, later on, when he was thrown into jail in Egypt, it was because of his refusal to sin, rather than because of any wickedness on his part. God was not punishing Joseph, and this is very important for us to remember.

For us Christians this is even clearer than it was for Joseph, because Jesus has died for our sins. Over and over again, when Christian people go through suffering, they come to their pastors and cry out “Why is God doing this to me? I’ve tried to be a good person – why is he punishing me?” The answer is – he isn’t. Whatever else our suffering might be, it’s not a punishment for our sins. How do we know that? Because Romans 8:1 says ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. No condemnation. So whatever else our suffering may be, it’s not a punishment from God.

The second thing I see in this story is that often our lives only make sense when we look back on them. Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery; it was thirteen years before Pharaoh took him out of the prison and put him in charge of famine preparation for the whole of Egypt, and another nine years before his brothers came down to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph would have had to be superhuman not to have wondered during all those years what on earth God was up to, or even if God had forgotten about him. I’m sure that there were many times he cried out to God to deliver him, but it seemed to him that his prayers were not being answered.

And yet, God was at work during that time. Surely Joseph’s experience of suffering humbled him, and helped him learn to depend on God. By the time he was put in charge of famine preparation in Egypt he was no longer the spoiled brat who used to annoy his brothers so much. By the time he saw his brothers again, he understood what God had been up to in allowing him to go through that suffering: “Even though you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good” (50:20), he said to his brothers.

And not just good for Israel as a people – good for Joseph himself as well. The author of Hebrews says of Jesus, ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings’ (Hebrews 2:10). I don’t know about you, but when I’m looking for people with strength and wisdom, I usually look for people who have suffered. I don’t look for people whose lives have been easy; I look for people who have learned endurance and patience by dealing with difficulty in their lives. I don’t believe that God sends suffering as a punishment, but I do believe that he uses it to mould us into wise, patient and compassionate people. I’m sure that’s what happened to Joseph. Looking back on his life, he could see what God had been up to, and that it had been good for everyone involved, including him.

The third thing I see in this story is this: our suffering can’t frustrate God’s purpose for us. We are a part of God’s plan for the human race, and he is going to bring that plan to its successful conclusion.

Throughout the story of the Bible God has been calling together a people – whether the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, or the Church of Jesus Christ in the New – a people who would model for the whole world what God’s kingdom looks like, and would take God’s message to everyone. So you and I aren’t just isolated individuals living our lives in the middle of the accidents of history. We’re a part of God’s great plan, and God isn’t going to allow evil to derail that plan. Sometimes when we suffer we forget that; we think that God’s plan is going to be somehow hindered by what’s happening to us. But the Bible gives us lots of examples of how God can even bring good out of the evil things that happen to us. This story of Joseph is one of those examples.

Suffering is a great mystery, very difficult for us to understand. Many of us have gone through intense experiences of suffering, or sat at the bedsides of friends who are suffering, which sometimes seems even worse. So I don’t say these things glibly or lightly; I’m fully aware of the dreadful – and seemingly random and senseless – pain that many people go through.

And yet, somehow, God is still able to bring about his purposes for us even when we suffer. As Paul says, ‘In all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28). This is a truth that we often have to take on trust; we can’t see it when we’re going through the suffering. In many cases, I think, we won’t see it until we see God face to face and see our whole lives from his perspective.

In Romans 8:38-39 Paul says ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  You know, it sounds terrible when I say it, but these verses are not strictly true. Let me explain what I mean. Paul is right; by themselves these things can’t separate us from God’s love in Christ – unless we let them! Unfortunately, so often when we go through suffering we do allow these things to drive us away from God; we get so wrapped up in the suffering and we allow it to make us bitter and full of hate and self-pity.

The thing that impresses me most about the story of Joseph is that he didn’t do that. Surely if anyone had an excuse to indulge in despair and to rail angrily against God, Joseph did! But that was not his response. In every negative circumstance he found himself in, he accepted it, and began to do his best to be faithful to God wherever he was – even in the deepest dungeon. And God honoured that.

Joseph’s story is inviting us to turn to God in our suffering, to be faithful to him whether we feel like it or not, and to ask for his help moment by moment. As we learn to do that, we gradually discover that Paul is right after all, and there is absolutely nothing – even death itself – that can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Mystery to Me

This is a new song lyric I wrote tonight. No tune yet, but it’ll come.

Mystery to me
© 2017 by Tim Chesterton

It’s a mystery to me
When people don’t have eyes to see
that wrong’s not right and never can be
It’s a mystery to me

It’s a mystery all right
They take the dark and call it light
They say it’s day when it’s really night
It’s a mystery all right

It’s a mystery all the same
The things they’re saying in Jesus’ name
They should be hanging their heads in shame
It’s a mystery all the same

It’s a mystery indeed
How hate grows up from a poisoned seed
And turns its wrath on the ones in need
It’s a mystery indeed

It’s a mystery to me
Those men of war on a killing spree
When all are dead then no one’s free
It’s a mystery to me

It’s a mystery to me
When people don’t have eyes to see
that wrong’s not right and never can be
It’s a mystery to me

 

All You Need is Hate

This morning I thought about this poem by Steve Turner; it appears in his collection ‘Up to Date‘, published in 1983 and now long out of print. Somehow, it seems sadly relevant.

All You Need is Hate

Alan hated soldiers, and teachers
and politicians, policemen, and bankers.
Alan was full of hate for such people.
Poured his hate into poems.
Threw the poems at audiences
who sat bleeding in their seats,
words hanging from holes in their skin.
Hate them, he shouted, boot stomping
the boards.
Hate them. Hate them.
Alan, I said. Alan.
Hate hate, Alan, I said. Hate
hate.
It’s the only hate worth having, Alan
and it comes by another name.

More poems by Steve Turner here.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Blessing (a sermon on Genesis 32:22-31)

I’m told by people who spend a lot more time on Twitter and Facebook than I do that there’s been a rash of posts recently that use the hashtag ‘blessing’ or ‘blessed’. You’d think that these posts would be mainly from Christians or people of faith, but a lot of the people using them don’t identify as being religious. Many people, including people who have only the vaguest idea of God, often have the sense that they’ve been gifted by something or someone bigger than themselves, and they want to show their gratitude – hence, the hashtag.

Blessing was a powerful idea in the ancient world. Ancient people had a lot more confidence than we do in the power of words to actually cause things to happen. In the first chapter of Genesis God speaks – “Let there be light” – and God’s word makes something happen: light comes out of darkness. And so it continues throughout the chapter: ‘Let there be a firmament’, ‘Let there be waters’, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky’ and so on. God speaks, and it is done.

In the Old Testament, humans are sometimes given the authority to speak powerful words in the name of God. The Old Testament priests are commanded to bless the people in God’s name: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26). We still have this tradition in the Christian church today, where a priest or pastor will speak words of blessing over a congregation or a group of people.

The idea of blessing is an important feature of the story of Jacob. You may remember that Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and so probably lived about 1800 years before Christ. Abraham’s son Isaac married Rebekah, sister of Abraham’s nephew Bethuel; Bethuel’s family lived in Haran, which is near the modern border between Turkey and Syria – so a long journey from Canaan in the ancient world. That was the country Abraham had left behind when he first moved to Canaan.

Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the oldest, but Jacob did his best to beat him to the starting line! Genesis tells us that ‘The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle, so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, so he was named Jacob’ (25:25-26). ‘Jacob’ sounds like the Hebrew phrase ‘He takes by the heel’ or ‘He supplants’. It’s a name that’s going to mark Jacob’s life; he’s going to see life as a competition, in which he has to grab a blessing for himself, or even trick others into giving him a blessing.

We’re told that Isaac and Rebekah had favourites. Isaac was sixty when his sons were born. Esau grew up to be an outdoor kind of guy who enjoyed hunting wild game, and Isaac had a taste for that kind of thing, so he liked Esau better. Jacob, however, was a quiet kind of guy who liked hanging around the tents the family lived in, and he was closer to his mother Rebekah.

The paternal blessing was a big thing in those days. Fathers had the authority to speak God’s blessing on their children, and the blessing of the firstborn was really, really important. The time came when Isaac got old and blind, and he thought he ought to give his oldest son the blessing while he could. So he told Esau to go out and hunt him some wild game and make a stew for him and bring it to him to eat; then he would give him the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah heard this and she tricked her husband. She took a goat from the flock, killed it and cooked a stew; she took some of the goatskins and put them on the arms and shoulders of Jacob, and then sent him in to pretend to be Esau and get his father’s blessing. It worked, and Isaac gave the blessing of the firstborn to the younger son by mistake.

Esau of course was furious and threatened to kill Jacob, and so Isaac and Rebekah told him to go away to Haran, look for their relatives there, and look for a wife from the family of his uncle Laban, Rebekah’s brother. So Jacob set out on the long journey to Haran.

But on the way, something unexpected happened. He was tired one night and lay down to sleep, using a stone as a pillow. As he slept, he had a dream; he saw a stairway or ladder set up between earth and heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the ladder. Then God spoke to him: “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13, 15).

Interestingly, Jacob didn’t think he could trust God to keep that promise; he felt like he had to ‘grasp his heel’ or bargain with him. The next day when he woke up he set up the stone as a memorial – he called it ‘House of God’, or ‘Bethel’ in Hebrew – and he said, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come back again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (28:20-22). Sounds like he was trying to do a deal with God! I don’t know if Jacob really thought that God was so hard up for cash that he’d jump at the offer of Jacob’s tithe, but it certainly sounds like it!

Anyway, Jacob made the long journey to Haran, and there the first person he met was Rachel, daughter of his mother’s brother Laban. It seems to have been love at first sight for Jacob. Rachel took him back to her father’s house, where he was welcomed, and after a month Laban took him on as one of his regular workers, helping to care for his flocks of sheep and goats. They struck a deal (why does that sound familiar?): Jacob would serve Laban for seven years if he would give him Rachel as his wife.

Laban agreed, but what Jacob didn’t realize was that in his uncle Laban he’d met a trickster and manipulator just as good as he was. Rachel had an older sister Leah, and we get the sense she wasn’t as attractive as Rachel. After seven years was over, Jacob asked for his wife, so Laban duly arranged a marriage feast. There weren’t any special ceremonies in those days, as far as we can tell – just a feast, and then the bride was taken to her husband’s room for the marriage to be consummated. Somehow – we don’t know how – Laban was able to substitute his older daughter for the younger, and when Jacob woke up in the morning (maybe with a hangover?) – there was Leah! He was furious, but when he challenged Laban about it, Laban invented some excuse about it not being the custom in their country to marry off the younger sister before the older. “Finish Leah’s bridal week”, he said, “and then we’ll give you Rachel as a second wife – in exchange for another seven years of work!” So that’s what happened.

Clearly Jacob, who had learned the art of manipulation from an expert – his mother – was now experiencing what it was like to be on the receiving end of it from her brother. But his new situation wasn’t calculated to promote family harmony. Bluntly put, he loved Rachel but not Leah. Things got worse when Leah started having children right away, but Rachel seemed unable to produce any. Leah had four sons, and then finally in desperation Rachel gave Jacob her maid Bilhah: “Go sleep with her, and she’ll have sons that will be counted as mine”. This happened, and then Leah, not to be outdone, gave Jacob her maid Zilpah to do the same thing.

And so it went on for a few years, until finally, we’re told, Yahweh heard Rachel’s prayer and had mercy on her and gave her a son, Joseph – who, as you can guess, immediately became the apple of his father’s eye, being the son of the wife he did love, Rachel. Still, the score was pretty lopsided: six sons for Leah and two for her maid Zilpah, one son for Rachel and two for her maid Bilhah. In its patriarchal way the book of Genesis doesn’t mention daughters except for one, Dinah, daughter of Leah, who will figure later on in the story.

So you can imagine the conflicts and jealousies and insecurities that will plague this family throughout the lives of these people. Having been raised in a dysfunctional family in which he was his mother’s favourite while his brother was his father’s favourite, Jacob now successfully duplicated that kind of thing in his own family.

After a few years Jacob got a little discontented; he hadn’t had a raise in a long time! He confronted Laban about this, and made a proposal: the striped, speckled and spotted sheep in the flock would be his wages, while the plain ones would be Laban’s. Laban agreed to this, but then both of them came up with plans to try to cheat the other! And so it went on until eventually, after twenty years in Haran,  Jacob decided it was time to return home to Canaan with his family.

I don’t have time to tell you about the little drama that took place between Jacob’s family and Laban at this point – you can read about it in Genesis chapter 31. Suffice it to say that Jacob had two problems: how would he get away from his father in law Laban, and how would he be welcomed by his brother Esau? The second problem began to trouble him more when he got closer to home, and so he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau he was coming and to ask if he would find favour in his brother’s eyes. The messengers, however, came back to tell him that Esau was on his way to meet him, and he had four hundred men with him! This sounded rather like an army, and Jacob was understandably quite scared.

So Jacob split his family into four groups for safety and sent them across the Jabbok stream. He stayed behind, alone, and so we come to the mysterious episode we read about in our Old Testament reading this morning. A ‘man’, we’re told, came and wrestled with Jacob all night long until daybreak.

This story is told in a masterful way, with lots of hints but few direct statements. Who is this ‘man’? Why has he attacked Jacob? We’re not told directly. What we are told about is a little dialogue that happened between them as dawn was beginning to break:

‘Then (the man) said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob”. Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed”. Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name”. But he asked, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved”’ (32:26-30).

This story connects with so many earlier features in the story of Jacob. Let me close this morning by pointing them out to you.

You could say that two things shaped Jacob’s life. The first was the dysfunctional family he was raised in, and which he successfully duplicated when he came to have a family of his own. What he learned when he was growing up was that parents have favourites, and if he was going to get his father’s favour he’d have to strive for it and trick him into it. So his mother trained him to be a master manipulator and never to expect to get anything for free. But one thing he didn’t learn was to trust people, and to trust that people would give him things freely, without him tricking them into it.

I suspect that many of us are like him. We’ve learned that we can’t trust life to give us what we long for. We’ve learned that life is a competition, and that the best manipulators are the ones who win. We’ve learned that blessing doesn’t come your way by itself; it needs to be earned.

So Jacob’s life was shaped by the jaded view of the world that he learned in growing up in his dysfunctional family. But the other thing that shaped his life was his two encounters with God.

The first encounter was in his dream at Bethel, when he saw the stairway to heaven. In that encounter, God made some promises to him. God told him: “I’m the God of Abraham and Isaac; I’m going to give you this land I promised to them, and your descendants will spread through it and fill it. I’ll be with you and protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you safely back to your own country, and I’ll never leave you”.

The problem is that Jacob couldn’t quite believe those promises. He couldn’t believe that they were a gift. He felt like he needed to bargain with God for them, or promise God a payback. And so he replied, “If you’ll do all these things for me…” (and I think in Jacob’s mind that was a very big ‘if’), “then you will be my God, and I’ll give you my tithes”.

We know Jacob better now, so we can guess why he replied like that. He’d never gotten anything in his life for free. He’d always had to compete with his brother for his father’s favour, knowing that Isaac loved Esau more than him. He couldn’t bring himself to believe in a God who offered him a gift; there had to be a catch somewhere!

And then, twenty years later, Jacob has his second encounter with God – the one we’ve read about today. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the blessing he received from his father twenty years before – the one he got by manipulation – wasn’t enough for him. He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for! He obviously suspects that this ‘man’ he’s been wrestling with is more than just a man, so he asks him for a blessing: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me”. And the man responds by giving him a new name: no longer Jacob (‘he supplants’) but Israel (‘The one who strives with God’). You can hear the surprise in Jacob’s voice: “I’ve seen God face to face, and I’m not dead!”

Is Jacob a different person from this point on? Not entirely. He still falls back on his old trickster ways from time to time; the habits of a lifetime are hard to break. But he’s a humbler man than he was, and he has more of a sense of God’s presence in his life. And looking ahead, he’s also learning to see God’s presence in the past, too. In chapter 35 he says to his family, “Come, let us go up to Bethel, that I may make an altar there to the God who answered me on the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone” (35:3).

Let me leave you with this. Like Jacob, many of us have been raised with the idea that life is a competition. Nothing comes for free. Love has to be earned. If some people get ahead, others have to be left behind. So in order to get ahead, you have to learn to manipulate people. Maybe you even have to learn to manipulate God.

But that’s not the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us of a God who loves us before we ever do anything for him. He sends his sun and rain on good and bad alike. ‘We love’, says John the apostle, ‘because he first loved us’.

At the end of the service today, I will pronounce words of blessing on you. This is not my blessing; this is God, reaching out with his love to each of us. These words are for everyone here, with no exceptions. You don’t have to pay for them, before or after. You don’t have to manipulate anyone to get them. They come to you as a gift of God’s grace. All you need to do is receive them, and enjoy them, and say “Thank you”. I don’t know if Jacob ever fully learned to believe that. But I hope you do, and I hope I do too.

Daoirí Farrell: ‘The Creggan White Hare’

I’ve long suspected that the ideal folk festival for me to attend exists in Britain, not in North America. The lineup at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival is proving me right.

For example, here’s Daorí Farrell playing his version of ‘The Creggan White Hare’.

Here’s what the Festival website has to say about him:

A former electrician, who decided to change profession after seeing Christy Moore perform on Irish TV, Dublin-born traditional singer and bouzouki player Daoirí (pronounced ‘Derry’) Farrell is being described by some of the biggest names in Irish folk music as one of most important singers to come out of Ireland in recent years, and has delivered the album to prove them right.

Six months after releasing the album ‘True Born Irishman’ Daoirí won two prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2017 for Best Newcomer, and Best Traditional Track and also performed live at the awards ceremony at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Here’s his website.

The Treasure of the Kingdom of Heaven (a sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52)

It’s good for us to ask ourselves sometimes ‘What are the things we treasure the most?’

Of course, for most of us, the answer will be about relationships, not material things. But still, most of us own a lot of material things! Maybe it’s not a bad thing to ask ourselves from time to time “If I had ten minutes to leave the house and I could only take a few things with me, knowing that I was going to lose the rest – what would I take?” Most people over a certain age think about grabbing photo albums – for younger folks, their photos are all on the iCloud anyway, so that’s not so crucial! But there might still be some family mementos or heirlooms that are particularly precious to us. And then there are things we love; I know I’d be trying to fit at least one of my guitars in if I could!

But deep down inside, I suspect most of us treasure relationships – with a spouse or partner, with children, with parents, with close friends. Love is what makes the world go round, and the people we love are the most treasured part of our lives.

Another angle on this is ‘What about communal things’? In other words, do our best treasures have to be things we own, or can they be things we share with others? For instance, one treasured part of my life is traditional folk music; I love learning these old songs passed down from one generation to another over hundreds of years, and I love passing them on to others in turn. The Way of Jesus is even more of a treasure to me – it’s what gives meaning and purpose to my life. These are not things that I own or even that especially pertain to me as an individual: they are common treasures, shared with many other people around the world and through time.

In two of the parables in today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God as a precious treasure. Let me remind you of Matthew 13:44-46:

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it”’.

Anyone who sells every single thing he owns to buy one pearl obviously treasures that pearl more than anything else in his life. We might even call him a fanatic; he’s obviously not doing it for the money, but because of some crazy attachment to the pearl. But what’s he going to live on? What’s his retirement plan? Is he insane? Unbalanced? Off his rocker?

It all depends on the nature of the pearl, doesn’t it?

So what is ‘the kingdom of heaven’? A lot of people today assume that when Jesus talked about ‘the kingdom of heaven’ he was talking about ‘going to heaven after we die’, but that’s not the case. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about ‘the kingdom of heaven’, but when Mark and Luke tell the same stories, they have Jesus using the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’. The difference likely comes from the fact that Matthew was writing for Jewish people and they’re tend to be shy about speaking the word ‘God’, out of respect for God. But the two phrases – ‘kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ – mean exactly the same thing. They’re not talking about some faraway, spiritual place where we go when we die. They’re talking about God’s loving rule in this world, the world we live in, in the here and now.

This world at present is full of evil and suffering, but God is working to change that situation. Jesus talks about this change in the Lord’s Prayer, when he teaches us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s loving will is done on earth, as it is in heaven, then God’s kingdom is coming. God’s kingdom is all about God’s loving will being done on earth, as human beings acknowledge God’s rule in their lives and follow his ways. That’s why Jesus once said to his disciples, “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).

This is obviously not a geographical kingdom. You can’t see it on a map, like you can see Canada or the United States. This is a community of people that has spread around the world. They come from different races and nationalities; they speak different languages and have different cultures. But they are bound together by their allegiance to Jesus, God’s anointed king, and by their commitment to following the command of Jesus: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

What does this kingdom of heaven look like? Jesus told many parables about it, but I think it also helps for us to look back at the Old Testament scriptures that would have inspired Jesus and his early followers. The phrase ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’ rarely appears in the Old Testament, but the idea itself is all over the place, especially in the prophets. Here’s Micah:

‘In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken’ (Micah 4:1-4).

So we see here a time when people all over the world will turn to God and seek God’s guidance. They will come streaming to Jerusalem to receive instruction from God and learn to walk in God’s ways. And the result will be that war will be no more; people will beat their weapons into farming tools and each of them will live in their own homes in safety.

This is obviously not talking about dying and going to heaven. This is a hope located firmly on this earth. There are still different nations and ethnic groups and from time to time they still have disagreements, but they accept God’s word on the matter as final and they live together under his rule.

Here’s Isaiah’s take on the same theme; he starts with the promise of a Messiah, a descendant of David the son of Jesse, who will be a good king over God’s people:

‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:1-4a, 6-9).

This passage is not talking about some mythical future time when the biology of lions and bears will be changed so that they become vegetarians. The animals are symbols for natural enemies; in Isaiah’s time that would have been Israel and Assyria, or later on Babylon. Today we can think of the United States and North Korea, or Russia and Ukraine. The Messiah is a good king who comes to bring peace between nations. As a result of his rule, natural enemies are reconciled with each other and don’t prey on each other any more. There’s no more hurting or destroying, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord – which, in the Bible, doesn’t mean knowledge about the Lord, but experiential knowledge.

So this is the pearl of great price that the man sold his house for. The Kingdom of heaven is the promise that God has set in motion a movement that eventually will lead to justice and reconciliation, peace and security. It will be an end to greed and selfishness, hatred and violence and war. It won’t be spread by compulsion; there will be no troops sent out to force other people to enter the Kingdom of God. Rather, an invitation will be sent to everyone, but the decision to come to the mountain of the Lord and receive his instruction will be a decision that everyone makes for themselves, of their own free will.

Interestingly, the early Christians did not see this as something that was going to happen only in some faraway future. They saw it as something that has begun to happen in the here and now. When the apostles and early missionaries went out from Jerusalem to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, they saw that as a fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that ‘out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ (Micah 4:2). The early Christians turned away from all war and violence and lived out the command to love their enemies; in this way they were fulfilling the prophecy about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Yes, there is going to be a future fulfilment of this prophecy, but it would be a cop-out for us to consign it to the future. This is something we’re invited to live into now.

You see now why Jesus asks us to make this the greatest treasure of our lives, above everything else that we value? We’re talking about a world with no more hatred and violence, no more selfishness and greed; a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much. We’re talking about God’s original dream for the human race, living together in peace and caring for his creation as stewards of the earth.

How is this spread today? Matthew 13 is all about this question. At the beginning of today’s gospel Jesus gives us some hints:

‘“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:31-33).

These parables both emphasise the gradual growth of the Kingdom, and its hidden nature. This is not spectacular! It doesn’t make the news; the world doesn’t notice it going on. I think about Jean Vanier leaving his naval career and moving to France to start a home with two mentally challenged people – the beginning of the L’Arche movement that has slowly and quietly spread around the world. I think about the way Habitat for Humanity started from small beginnings and has spread around the world to make life better for people who can’t afford housing. I think of the millions of people of faith around the world who quietly serve in food banks and volunteer and give consistently to projects to improve the lives of the poor. None of this is about coercion and force; it’s all about love and service.

The Kingdom of Heaven spreads one heart at a time. People hear the message of Jesus and they are gripped by it; they decide that this ‘pearl of great price’ is the greatest treasure they could possibly imagine. So they turn from their previous goals and commitments; they make a commitment to follow Jesus, and they ask him to teach them the ways of the Kingdom of God. They ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’. They make the Kingdom of heaven the number one value of their lives. And because they do this, the world is changed for the better.

This is what we commit ourselves to as baptized Christians. As parents bringing children for baptism, or as adults being baptized ourselves, our baptism is about our citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we grow, we learn to treasure that Kingdom above any other goal or aspiration in our lives. We learn to seek first the Kingdom of God. And we do our best to spread it: not by coercion or force, but by love and conversation.

This is what Jesus is all about. This is what we’re all about as Christians. Christianity is a Kingdom of God movement, and each one of us is part of it. So let me challenge you today to do as Jesus teaches us in today’s gospel: to treasure God’s kingdom above every other priority in your life, and to make it your number one value. As we do that, and as we live it out in our daily decisions and habits, the love of God will spread until ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9).

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.