Genesis 50:19-21; Romans 8:38-39
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 6, 2015
The people who taught me the most about preaching were not seminary professors, and they were people who probably would have flunked the seminary course on “Homeletics.” They all had one thing in common: They believed that sermons should speak to our lives now, and each one should give you something you can use now. John Claypool was one of them, and at the end of each month, he would send to me, a young minister, copies of that month’s sermons from him. John looked at the same sermon materials that I had used that month, but he say things I never would have seen in the scripture lessons for each Sunday. John taught me to open my eyes more than my mouth. Although John died in 2005, I recently found two books he had written that I had never seen. One of them was several sermons he gave about Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. As usual, John helped me to look at the stories with new eyes, and I’d like to share what I learned.
Jacob’s twin brother Esau, was born a few minutes before Jacob, which meant he was the oldest, and in those days, that gave Esau the power and the wealth in the family after his father died. But when Isaac was close to death, half-blind and deaf, Jacob managed to fool him into giving Jacob his blessing, and Jacob had already outfoxed Esau into giving Jacob his birthright. Jacob’s name meant “the Conniver” and he lived up to his name. When Esau discovered that, not only had Jacob stolen his birthright, but also their father’s blessing, Esau vowed to kill Jacob, which almost happened. Esau was the expert hunter, Jacob the homebody. It was no easy match, so Jacob immediately left home and headed to far-off Mesopotamia, where his mother’s brother, Laban, lived. On his way to that far-off land, afraid for his life, Jacob lay down and had a dream. John Claypool describes it this way:
With nothing but a rock for his pillow, he managed finally to go to sleep, only to have something absolutely incredible happen. Jacob had a great dream in which he saw a ladder rooted in heaven above descending down to that lonely spot where he laid. Angels were moving up and down this ladder, and the Lord God himself appeared at the top of the ladder and said, “I am the God of Abraham and of Isaac.” At that point, the Holy One called Jacob by name and said, “The land where you are sleeping is someday going to be given to your descendants. I am going to protect you on this journey you are taking today and I will eventually bring you back.” In other words, Jacob was told that God was going to be with him and for him, in spite of everything he had done. Here is genuine miracle. In a place where he least expected it and at a time when he least deserved it, grace happened to Jacob in a most amazing way.
Jacob’s response to his incredible dream encounter was utter astonishment. The only words he could muster were, “Surely God was in this place but I knew it not.” I look on this statement as an accurate description of our religious condition. God is with us and for us always, but the problem is that we are not always aware.
Especially in the toughest of times, we can also say, “I did not know it.” Finally, Jacob gets to Laban’s house, but he is soon to discover that Laban is as much of a conniver as Jacob is. Jacob falls in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel, and Laban tells Jacob he must work for seven years in order to marry her. Jacob ends up marrying her older sister, Leah, before he can marry Rachel, and has to work another seven years in order to do so. It makes me laugh when I hear about “family values” in the Bible. Polygamy was quite acceptable then. Jacob ends up having ten sons by Leah and her servant girl, and also by Rachel’s servant girl – 3 different mothers. Finally, he and Rachel have a son named Joseph, and then a second son, Benjamin, and Jacob’s beloved Rachel dies in childbirth when Benjamin is born. As John Claypool describes the resultant dysfunctional family:
One of the ways that Jacob responded to his sorrow was to transfer the intense affection he had always felt for Rachel to her first-born son, Joseph. This pattern of behavior set the stage for an incredible string of conflicts in what was obviously, to use a modern term, a “dysfunctional family.” Jacob showed conspicuous favoritism to his eleventh son. He asked nothing of him in terms of work or responsibility and gave him special gifts, like the famous coat that the King James translation of the Bible describes as a garment of “many colors.” A better understanding of the original language has revealed that a “coat with long sleeves” is a more accurate rendering of the term, and this only adds detail to the folly of Jacob’s parenting style.
A coat of this sort was highly unusual in that period of history. One could hardly do the vigorous work of caring for animals in such a piece of clothing. Only a prince or someone exempt from physical labor would wear such a garment, all of which underlines the tensions that were brewing right under the surface of this family.
The effects of Jacob’s partiality were destructive to everyone involved. Not surprisingly, Joseph became an utterly arrogant and spoiled young child. He openly shared the dreams he had in his youth that reflected the grandiose self-image he had developed. He predicted that everyone else in the family would bow down to him because of his superiority. He was not above tattling on his older brothers to his father, creating even greater hostility between the two generations of father and sons. Naturally, the ten older brothers deeply resented Jacob’s whole pattern of behavior to everyone: to their mothers who were unloved, to themselves for the unfair discrimination from their father, and to this pampered pet named Joseph who was becoming increasingly insufferable.
The other brothers seethed with rage at the unfair treatment. One day, the older brothers had their chance. They grabbed Joseph, threw him in a dried-up well, and then sold him as a slave to a passing caravan, who then sold him when they got to Egypt. The brothers also took Joseph’s prize possession, his coat, and dipped it in sheep’s blood, showed it to their father, and told their father, Jacob that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Out of this terrible turn in his life, Joseph was changed.
Joseph’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn when the Midianite traders sold him to a highly placed Egyptian official named Potiphar, Chief of the Pharoah’s security guards. What happened next was truly surprising. For the first time in his life, something was expected of Joseph. He was put to work and given responsibilities within the structure of a well-run household and, as a result, this seventeen-year-old began to flower. Joseph has obviously inherited many natural gifts from both of his highly capable parents, but because nothing had ever been asked of him, those creative capacities were never recognized or developed. The amazing truth was that Joseph began to flourish developmentally in ways that he might never have done had he remained pampered by his indulgent father.
Sometimes, the worst that can happen to us becomes something that opens doors to us that never would have happened otherwise. Sometimes the worst of live changes us for the better. As the dramatic saga continues, Potiphar’s wife takes an interest in Joseph and makes advances, which Joseph rebuffs. Potiphar’s wife gets mad and has Joseph thrown into prison. While in prison, Joseph’s extraordinary ability to interpret dreams causes the Pharoah, who is having terrible nightmares, to call on Joseph to interpret what they mean. Joseph predicts that in seven years, there will be a great famine in Egypt and all the world. Joseph is given the task of storing up food for the famine. As Joseph had predicted, a famine struck the entire Middle East. Because of Joseph’s warning and the Pharoah’s making Joseph his second in command, Egypt has stored grain to survive the famine, and uses the grain to take over other cultures. His ten older brothers, in order to keep from starving, show up in Egypt for a handout. They must plead their case in front of Pharoah’s food administrator, but do not realize it is Joseph. There are many plot twists and turns, and finally, there is a great reconciliation of all the brothers with Joseph, and then with Joseph’s father, Jacob. There is an old saying that “a leopard cannot change its spots.” But the truth is that every human being can. In the midst of arrogance and conceit, guilt and guile, hatred and separation, there are possibilities for growth that we cannot experience otherwise. Somehow we must remain open to the fact that sorrow and suffering are not God’s last word.
If Jacob had not shone such favoritism to Joseph, if the brother had not sold him into slavery, if all of the plot twists and turns had not happened, then Joseph might have simply been a spoiled little kid who never grew up, and the tribe of Jacob might have starved to death and ceased to exist. Everyone in this saga changed over time, and ultimately, all changed for the better. As we go through the most difficult times of our life, we will also change, and there is always the possibility that, later on, we also might come to the realization, as Jacob did – that “Surely, God is in the place, and I did not recognize it.” The good news is that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
May our spots be changed, our eyes opened, and our struggles be used so that we, too, might become all we have been created to be.