Are We Engaged in Life or Disengaged?
The quarantine has afforded many of us the occasion to reflect on life. To be more precise, I mean to reflect on our stance towards life. With this in mind, let me pose the following question: Do we have a passive or an active stance towards life? That is to say, are we defensive, always on guard against threats? Or are we engaged, always open to possibilities, always ready to capitalize on the opportunities that life presents to us?
These two basic stances towards life appear in us already in early childhood. The German philosopher Hartmut Rosa tells of an experiment that a grade school teacher conducted with her class. One morning she walked into her classroom and told her students that she was seeking volunteers for an experiment about which she gave no further details. How do you think her students reacted? Well, predictably, some looked down at the floor, pretended to tie their shoes, or dug around in their book bags in the hope that they would be spared. But others looked up with eyes wide open, immediately raised their hands, and excitedly volunteered.
With which of these two groups do we identify? Let’s say that we identify with the former group. That is, we’ve tended to adopt a passive stance towards life. How has that been working for us? We’ve succeeded in avoiding threats for the most part. But in our more reflective moments, we’ve come to realize that over the years it has narrowed our horizons and even diminished our lives. In those moments, we feel a dissatisfaction with ourselves. We sense that we could have become more. We then ask ourselves whether or not real change is possible going forward.
Jacob was a reserved man. He was close to his mother Rebekah and preferred to stay close to home. This is what the Scripture means when it says that Jacob was content to live among the tents (Gen. 25:27). But Jacob left home. He had to venture out. And we can imagine how hard that must have been for him!
We began to follow Jacob on his journey last time. He came to a place called Luz, which he renamed Bethel. This word, when translated, means the “house of God.” Why did he call this place the “house of God”? Because he encountered God there. Recall that God stood next to Jacob and assured him with the words: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15).
I want us to sit again with those words for a moment. How do you think they impacted Jacob? How do they impact us? They impacted Jacob by giving him a future and a hope.
If we have no sense of a future, if we have no hope, life contracts. We disengage. We take on less. We no longer feel capable. We withdraw from relationships; we abandon projects. But if we have a future and a hope, life expands. We are ready to take on more, because we feel ourselves capable of more. We invest in relationships; we begin and complete projects.
This is where we find Jacob now. He’s a new man. God’s encounter with him at Bethel, God’s words to him there, changed him. He now moves forward in his life with confidence. In a few moments, we will see how all this manifests itself in the first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day.
Our story begins where Jacob’s journey ends. He is at the estate of Laban in Paddan Aram, where his family’s origins are. There we see the reason why he set out on his journey. He wants to find a wife, among his own people.
The Jewish sages see in Jacob’s journey an illustration of the marriage mandate, which first appears after the creation of the woman, as this is recounted in Genesis 2. “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (24). If Jacob is to find a wife, he must separate from his parents.
“Sometimes,” declare the Jewish sages, “one goes towards one’s mate, and sometimes one’s mate comes towards oneself.” In this case, and in contrast with that of his father Isaac, who waited at home for his wife to come to him, Jacob had to go out and find his, if he was going to marry at all.
Soon after arriving at this destination, Jacob finds the one for him. In his eyes, she is graceful and beautiful. He falls in love with her.
Jacob then approaches Laban, her father, and asks for her hand. We don’t know exactly the work arrangements made between Jacob and Laban; at any rate, Jacob agrees to serve Laban seven years in return for Rachel’s hand in marriage.
The narrator then, with a beautiful turn of phrase, reveals the depth of Jacob’s love for Rachel. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (29:20).
Let us pause and reflect on what is happening here. One can make no greater declaration about one’s stance towards the future than entering into marriage. How can one even begin to entertain marriage without a sense of the future? The act of marriage is the ultimate bet on the future. Consider the language from the marriage vows: “Do you promise to love her, as long as you both shall live?” “To have and to hold, from this day forward, until death do us part.” You see that in these words each is pledging his or her whole future to the other.
Jacob has a sense of the future. He has a hope. This is what God gave to him when he appeared and spoke to him at Bethel, as we have already seen. Indeed, apart from this transforming encounter with God, we cannot imagine the once timid Jacob in this place, in which he seizes the opportunity to marry the woman of his dreams.
Now bold and decisive, Jacob turns to Laban and says to him firmly. “Give me my wife, so that I may go into her, for my time is completed” (29:21).
There is a twist in the story here, and Bible students have seen in it Jacob’s getting his just deserts. Recall that Jacob swindled from his brother his birthright. When the time came to receive the birthright from his father Isaac, he disguised himself as his brother Esau. He was able to deceive the old man, who was now blind, by covering his smooth skin with goat’s skin, relying on the darkness in which his father lived. When Isaac touched him and felt the goat’s hair, he thought that it was his son Esau.
Now Jacob the deceiver is deceived by Laban, who covers weak-eyed Leah with heavy veils, so that Jacob doesn’t know it’s her, and then slips her into Jacob’s bed under cover of darkness. The younger son, Jacob, who once told his father Isaac, “I am your elder son,” now receives the elder daughter Leah as his wife, when he wanted the younger daughter Rachel. The deceiver, who once stole the assets of the first-born son, now receives the liabilities of the first-born daughter.
Laban’s ruse complicated Jacob’s life. It also made his daughter Leah’s life unhappy, because he gave her to a man who did not love her.
But we may also consider this from Jacob’s perspective. Since the day he first set his eyes on her, Jacob’s goal was to have Rachel’s hand in marriage. But Laban prevented him from realizing this goal.
People who have an active stance towards life, who are engaged in life, are not immune from life’s disappointments. It may appear to us otherwise, because we can’t help but imagine that they’ve always been successful. But it is possible to be deflected from our most important life goals. Indeed, if we’ve lived long enough, we will have discovered that it is not only possible but inevitable. But how do we respond?
Jacob must have been discouraged. How can we imagine it otherwise? He invested seven years of his life to attain his life’s goal, only to arrive at the end and see that it was apparently all for nothing. That must have been devastating for him. He could have easily thrown in the towel. He could have easily given up, reluctantly accepted Leah as his consolation prize, and gone home. And we would totally understand.
How do we react when we come up against obstacles? There will be obstacles in the course that we choose for ourselves, as, no doubt, we have already experienced. Some of these will be severe, as I am sure we have also experienced. In fact, they can be so severe that we resign ourselves to failure. We do not recover. We do not move forward. To borrow the language used earlier, we revert to a passive stance towards life.
Jacob feels cheated. The agreement was that Jacob work seven years for Rachel, and Laban did not honor the terms. Jacob confronts Laban and demands an explanation. Laban appeals to a custom, which he probably made up, and assures Jacob that he will get Rachel, provided that he completes the marriage week with Leah. However, after receiving Rachel, Jacob has to serve Laban another seven years!
Note that Jacob does not give up. The final words in our lesson tell us that “Laban then gave to him his daughter Rachel as a wife” (29:28). The story ends in success.
Whether or not we have an active stance towards life, whether or not we believe we have a future and a hope–that manifests itself in our response to obstacles. When we experience difficulties and disappointments, when the rules of the game change, when our life’s course leads us on a long detour, we have one of two options: we can give up or we can press forward. Put otherwise, we can withdraw or remain open; we can disengage or engage.
Let us consider where we are today. The coronavirus pandemic has devastated us. It has wrecked businesses, schools and churches. It has upended life as we know it. Goals have not been realized. Plans have been deferred. We’ve had to go on a long detour. In fact, now the detour seems to many of us so long that we’re beginning to lose sight of our goals. Many are about ready to throw in the towel, if they have not done so already.
It is today that we need a new encounter with God. And we need to hear from God the same words that he addressed to Jacob: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15).
Can we trust these words? Or, to be more precise, can we trust God to keep these words, despite the place we are in today? Let us entrust our future to God, who alone can give us a future and a hope. Amen.