Forgetting Who We Are
We’ve talked before about biblical spirituality. A mark of this spirituality is a profound sense of the opposition between the promise and the natural. The promise is made by God in circumstances in which it is unlikely to be fulfilled. Simply put, the odds are against it. God promises water for a woman and her child abandoned in the desert; God promises a child to an elderly barren couple; God promises a future for a child devoted to an altar of sacrifice; God promises a marriage for a solitary man isolated in a far distant land. In all these cases the natural is the obstacle to the fulfillment of the promise, rendering it unlikely or even impossible, at least from a human perspective.
Since this is the case, since this is a pattern that we find repeated in the Bible, especially and above all in Genesis, we don’t react with surprise when we learn that Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, has a barren womb. Again, the promise that God made to Abraham about offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky is under threat. Abraham’s line cannot continue unless and until Rebekah gives Isaac a son, and Abraham a grandson. Already at the beginning of the first lesson appointed for this Lord’s Day we have the occasion to ask: will God prove faithful to his promise? And if so, how? Under what circumstances?
We learned last time about efficacious prayer. By this term we mean prayer that God answers. Elsewhere in the Bible we are reminded that the prayer of the upright is powerful and effective (James 5:16). Eliezer prayed to God to grant him success in his search for a wife for Isaac, and God answered his prayer by directing him to Rebekah. Here Isaac prays to God to open the womb of his wife, and God hears and answers Isaac’s prayer. Rebekah conceives. With God all things are possible.
For the first time in the biblical narrative, there is more than one individual in the womb of a woman. Two children struggle together in her womb. They represent two nations, about which we will learn later as the history of ancient Israel unfolds. This introduces a note of suspense. In ancient Jewish society, it is the firstborn son who receives the blessing from the father. Who is the firstborn? And who will thereby obtain the blessing of the firstborn?
The verb translated as struggle is a strong word. It denotes a mutually aggressive, even violent struggle. Jacob grasps at Esau’s heel. It is saying that he sought to prevent his brother from emerging from the womb first. He fails in the attempt. For his brother Esau emerges first.
Later in the narrative he will have a second opportunity. We are told that the brothers have different personalities, different interests. Esau is the rugged, outdoor type. He is a sportsman, fond of roaming the fields in search of game. Jacob is the quiet, bookish type. He prefers staying close to home, and is fond of the culinary arts.
One day Esau goes hunting. On his return home, he is famished. Jacob is preparing some Lentil stew, which looks very good to Esau. Jacob will share some with his brother on one condition: that he give to him his birthright. Esau is very hungry, and without a second thought, agrees to the terms.
And so Esau despised his birthright. Opprobrium has been heaped on Esau by subsequent generations. He is the negative example. By negative example, we mean: don’t be like him. Don’t act like him. For the sake of gratifying an immediate desire, Esau gave up something far more valuable.
There is a saying that no longer circulates in our biblically illiterate culture, but you may have heard it before nonetheless: “to sell your birthright for a mess of pottage.” The saying comes from this lesson. It means to exchange something of great value for some momentary gain, which at first glance appears worth the price, but later proves to be trivial or insignificant.
Again, Esau presents to us a negative example. The lesson here is: Don’t be an Esau. Don’t sell out. Don’t compromise your value for the sake of a momentary satisfaction. Set your sight on a prize for which you may have to sacrifice now. The deprivation may be painful now, but in the end it will be worth it. To be sure, that is certainly a valid lesson to draw from this story.
But does that mean then that Jacob is the positive example? Is he the one from whom we are to draw our lesson? Are we to be and act like him? On the one hand, Jacob is esteemed because he values the birthright enough to go after it. We shouldn’t assume that we are to be passive before the good things that God has to give to us. Jacob has a proper sense of the value of things. He sets his sight on what is most worth having in life, and seizes it. All this is certainly commendable.
But are his actions justifiable? If we don’t feel entirely comfortable with what he does to his brother, there is certainly good reason. He takes advantage of his brother in a moment of weakness.
This is predatory behavior. In the wild, the lion pride singles out the young, the injured or the sick and attacks. This is what a predator does. That is why we find those who abuse, manipulate and exploit the young, the weak or those otherwise compromised by life’s hardships to be undesirable. They are a menace to society, and we prosecute them in extreme cases. We prefer to remove them from society by incarcerating them.
With this in mind, we find our focus shifting again to Esau, who becomes a more sympathetic figure, even an object of our pity. Nonetheless, he remains a negative example. In a moment of weakness, of hunger and want, he forgot who he was. He is the firstborn, and therefore the recipient of the blessing of the firstborn. That is his birthright. But in his suffering, he lost sight of this. We can say he underwent a momentary identity crisis.
Is it not the case that we too are prone to lose sight of who we are in times of pain, loss, loneliness and deprivation? Those seem to be the times when we are especially vulnerable to the one who wants to prey on our weakness, just as Esau was. We compromise our integrity, we betray our value, and we believe the lie.
Let us momentarily shift our attention to the gospel lesson designated for today. It features the parable of the sower. The farmer goes out to sow his seed. Some falls on the path, and the birds come and snatch it away. Some falls on the rocky ground, where the soil is shallow, preventing it from taking root. Some falls among the thorns, which choke it out when it springs up. But then at last some falls on fertile soil, where it produces a harvest, one hundred, sixty and thirty times what is sown.
The seed represents the word of God. The different places where the sower scattered the seed represent the different conditions of the human heart. Is the heart receptive to the word of God? If it’s not, then the word will have no effect in the person’s life. Does the heart serve as a place where the word of God can take root, spring up, and produce a crop? If it does, then the person will live a productive life in service to the kingdom of God, influencing for the good those around him or her.
Instructive for us in light of our theme is the seed scattered on rocky ground. When interpreting this, Jesus tells about those who receive the word with joy, but when trouble or persecution comes, they fall away, because they have no root.
This applies to Esau. The word addressed to him is that he is the firstborn, to him belongs the blessing of the firstborn. How else could he have received that word except with joy! But when trouble came into his life, when he experienced hunger and want, he fell away. He forgot who he was.
I am going to be vulnerable here. Let me confess to you one of the fears I have as your pastor. I fear that the longer we go without meeting together, the greater the risk that we forget who we are. This is not a plug to meet earlier than the conditions allow. This is only to acknowledge that meeting together in public worship continually creates and recreates our identity as the people of God.
We are more than our appetites for food and drink, security and sex, as vital as these things are. We are creatures in search of an identity. We need a larger story into which to fit our personal stories. If we don’t find an identity in the church, we will find it in the world. Through the 24-hour news cycle and Netflix, the world is always ready to give us an identity. It knows that we are a bundle of needs and desires and worries. It is always ready to tell us what they mean, and how we are to cope with them. And if we don’t accept the identity it gives to us, it knows how to make us feel guilty about it.
We should not let the world tell us who we are. Instead we should let God tell us who we are. God tells us that we are the children of Abraham by faith, the recipients of the blessings of the covenant, and the heirs of its promises. This is our deepest identity.
God tells us who we are in God’s word. That is why, when we gather together, we read from the Bible, where we expect to encounter God’s word. We have to be reminded of the things that God has to tell us there, because we are always in danger of forgetting who we are. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau—these are not only colorful characters that populate tales from the ancient middle east. They are our patriarchs and matriarchs, our fathers and mothers in the faith. The God who chose and blessed them is the same God who chooses and blesses us. This God is as intensely committed to us as he was to them. He has shown that commitment to us definitively in Jesus Christ. And he seals it on our hearts with the Holy Spirit, whom he has given to us.
Those who are rooted in their identity as children of Abraham, those who rest secure in the promises that God has made to them, those who are confident in God’s provision for them —they cannot so easily be used, manipulated or exploited by those who prey on the vulnerable in this world. They cannot so easily be told by the world who they are. They stand firm in their faith, referring their every need, desire and worry to their God. Let us too be found among them. Let us make sure that our hearts are fertile soil for the sowing of the word. We can and ought to let that word sink deep roots into our hearts, so that when pain, loss, deprivation and hardship come, if they have not already, we will not fall away. Amen.