Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Saint Paul's Remedies for Anxiety

Philippians 4:1-9

What do you worry about? I’m sure if I took a survey of this congregation, no one would have any difficulty answering that question. We all worry and we all feel anxious for the future at times.

Each of us is touched by the ordinary stresses of life. Work, family, bills to pay, errands to run, health concerns, political concerns, religious and spiritual questions…Everything that makes life worthwhile and rewarding can also be a source of anxiety.

While all of us have anxieties and worries, it is a chronic and even debilitating problem for some us. Whether it is by temperament, biology, or upbringing, some of us suffer from various anxiety disorders. In fact it is pretty common and increasingly more so. Recent statistics suggest that 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or roughly 18% of the population suffer from an anxiety disorder. Many of those who suffer receive no treatment at all.  

It is not God’s will that we should overcome or oppressed by anxiety. Although a certain degree of worry is inevitable, he does not wish us to succumb to our anxieties or be defeated by them. For chronic sufferers of anxiety, therapy and medication can help. They are a good thing and should never be stigmatized or dismissed.  The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Give the doctor his due!” and “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.”

As Christians we also should gain strength and encouragement from our faith. Saint Paul exhorts those who are anxious, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything!”

He assures us that we are always—even now—under the gentle guidance of our heavenly Father and in the loving presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. If you could see Jesus walking beside you in your struggles, if you always felt the power of the Holy Spirit, if you had a continual sense of your Father’s watchful gaze and knew that everything he has is yours, wouldn’t you feel you feel less anxious? Yet we walk by faith and not by sight. We don’t always experience these realities in a tangible way but we are asked to trust them by faith.

Paul tells us—he commands us actually—to not be anxious about anything! Now one thing we must not do in response to this commandment is to become anxious about our anxiousness! Some of us worry about our worry. We worry that our worries are some kind indication that our faith is deficient.  The fact is, however, that God does not expect us to free ourselves from anxiety by sheer force of willpower. That is not what Saint Paul is asking us to do here. Instead he gives us practical strategies for combating anxiety on a spiritual level.

Philippians 4 is a treatment plan, and like any treatment plan it is not a magical cure nor should we expect instant and immediate results. It is a plan for the long term. I want to highlight three strategies that Saint Paul believes that we should turn to again and again in our struggle with anxiety.

The first is to rejoice! Saint Paul is emphatic in his commandment, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!”

There is a scene from HBO’s John Adams miniseries that I think of often. Adams faced tremendous challenges in his life. He helped lead the American Revolution for independence, he served the newly formed nation as president during a time of anxiety and uncertainty, he lost his daughter to cancer, and he suffered a strained relationship with his alcoholic son. In the scene he is an old man giving advice to his other son Thomas on an evening stroll. He says, 


“Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely. I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? I have seen a queen of France with eighteen million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub,” He says pointing with his walking stick to a small white flower in the field. He continues, “Now my mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”

He begins to speak to himself in his revelry, “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice Evermore!” Thomas looks at him puzzled and he snaps back, “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool! REJOICE EVERMORE! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.”

When you look back on your life in your final days, what do you think you will be more likely to regret? Will you regret that you didn’t spend enough time worrying about the future, what people thought of you…or will you regret that you didn’t take enough time to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life?

Neither Saint Paul nor John Adams were strangers to anxiety; they both knew great sorrow and loss, and yet their advice to us is to “Rejoice Evermore!”

The second strategy Saint Paul offers for dealing with anxiety is to in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.

It goes without saying that if we wish to have a more abiding faith in God’s presence with us, that we need to grow and deepen in our prayer life. Do we pour out our grief and care to God in prayer? Are we ever, like John Adams, filled with the irresistible urge to fall on our knees in admiration, or are we contented to have a merely formal relationship with him? We should regularly open our hearts to God like we would a trusted friend or a wise father.

Why should we make our request known to God? Doesn’t he know what we need already? Yes, of course he does, but our supplications are more for our own sake rather than God’s. He wants to bring our concerns to him, and in so doing to trust them to his provision and care. He wants to carry our burdens. If I take a heavy load from my back and hand it to another, it means I am no longer carrying it! I have entrusted it to the strength of another. That is what God wants us to do with our worries and anxieties. He wants us to place them in his hands.

The third strategy for dealing with anxiety that Saint Paul offers us is about thinking about what we think about,   

"whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

In recent years, many people have found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helpful in combating anxiety. The goal here is to help individuals change unhelpful patterns of thinking, behavior, and self-talk and to replace them with healthier patterns. The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think and feel.

Saint Paul wasn’t a cognitive psychologist, but some of the strengths of that approach are reflected in his wisdom here. What could be better than to fill our minds with the beauty, the goodness, the love, and perfection of God? Instead of dwelling on what is wrong with us, we should turn instead to one in whose light we are revealed, because in him is our joy and salvation. Yes, we need to honest about our sin and our need for redemption, but we don’t dwell on our wretchedness or guilt but rather on God’s grace and mercy.

Think about these things Saint Paul says, give your cares to God, rejoice evermore, and the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds from all assaults of anxiety and despair.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What is it?

The name that the Israelites gave to the bread from heaven, the food that God provided, was Manna, which means, “What is it?” Our text says,
In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

What is it? That is the question I want us to dwell on this morning. The Lord taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” What has he given you? What has the Lord provided? It is so easy to lose sight of all the ways God has been faithful to us. It is so much easier to focus on what we don’t have and to dwell on our struggles.

When God’s people were wandering in the wilderness they all began to grumble and complain. They actually wished that they were dead. They began to look back longingly on their slavery in Egypt. At least there they had food!
They forgot how when they were groaning under the unbearable weight of their oppression in Egypt, God delivered them and led them out with a mighty outstretched hand. He showed them signs and wonders. He split the Red Sea so that they walked through on dry ground. But what had he done for them lately?

The spiritual discipline of counting our blessings is so important. I can sometimes be guilty of catastrophic thinking. When things start to get difficult I assume the worst. I can become anxious and worried about the future. Sometimes in those situations, if I can actually step away from my worries for a moment, it helps to be able to think back on how God has helped me in the past and to take an accounting of what he is doing at the moment. 

I remember how lonely I was at one point in my life. How I thought I would never find someone to love, but then I met April, who for some crazy reason agreed to marry me.

You might laugh at this one. When April and I were first married we lived in a tiny one bedroom apartment. We were so happy to have our own place together. After a year though, I began to feel dissatisfied. Would we ever live in a house? Would I ever make a decent living?

In seminary I worried if I would ever find a job. When I found a great curacy in Cooperstown, I worried that I would never find a job as a rector. I worried that I wouldn’t be happy with the place God sent me.

Now, I consider the gorgeous rectory where my beautiful family lives—much nicer than anyplace I have lived before. I look around at this beautiful, historic, church building that I have the pleasure of serving in. I think about you all—the wonderful congregation here at Saint George’s—and I feel blessed. The Lord has been good to me. The Lord provides. Why should I not trust that he will continue to provide?

The same incident recorded in our reading from Exodus is also described in the book of Psalms. Psalm 78 describes it this way,

For they had no faith in God, *
nor did they put their trust in his saving power.
So he commanded the clouds above *
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.
So mortals ate the bread of angels; *
he provided for them food enough.

God was angry and frustrated with his people, so what did he do? He blessed them! He gave them all the food they needed. What is the meaning of this? I think it must be similar to what Saint Paul meant when he said we should show love to those who wrong us, because in so doing we will pour burning coals upon their heads. God’s extravagant generosity is a rebuke to us because it exposes our lack of gratitude. When we consider how generous God has been to us we should feel convicted and resolve to be more faithful. And yet how does the psalm continue?
But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths”

Sometimes we are not happy unless what we have is better than what somebody else has. Be honest with yourselves and you will see that it is true!
Take a look at the parable in our Gospel lesson. It is a story about a man who hires some laborers to work in his vineyard. In those days, in that place, for many people, work was extremely hard to come by. They were living day to day. They never knew where their next meal would come from. Crowds of men would gather in the marketplace just hoping someone would offer them a day’s work. These particular men were very fortunate to have been chosen that day. They were completely at the mercy of the men who hired them—no labor unions back then—but fortunately this man agreed to pay them a fair wage.

What happens? He finds some other guys at the end of the day and hires them on too. The thing is, he pays them the same. He pays these guys an entire day’s wage for one hour’s work at the end of the day. This was extremely generous, but it really upsets all the other guys. Suddenly they aren’t so happy about what he gave them. He asks them, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

That is another good question. Are we envious over God’s generosity to other people? God owes us nothing and yet he has given us everything we have. Why not give thanks for what he has provided rather than begrudging his generosity to others?

Sometimes we don’t even know we want something until we see someone else enjoying it. Have you ever seen children at play? They all fight over the same toy! There can be a thousand toys available but they want to have the one that the other kid has. Psychologists have a word for this. They call it mimetic desire. The old fashioned word for it is envy, and we really haven’t out grown it yet.

When I consider how petty I can sometimes be, I am humbled by Saint Paul’s words in our Epistle today. He writes, “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”  What more could he possible need? He has Christ! He has the gift of salvation and communion with God in his Lord. He has the ultimate gift that even death cannot separate from him. What treasure in this world can be compared to Christ? In the words of the great hymn,

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,Look full in His wonderful face,And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,  In the light of His glory and grace

What is it? What is it that God has given you? Bread from heaven! Christ has given you his own body and blood, his whole self, body, soul, and divinity. He has rained down blessing upon us more than we deserve. The question we should be asking is not, “What has God done for me lately,” but, “What have I done for God lately? What can I do? What can I give to show my gratitude to him for his extravagant generosity? 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Exodus 1:8-2:10

Is it me or does it seem like half of every new film or television series is based on a superhero? Just this summer we saw Wonder Woman brought to the silver screen, yet another take on Spider-man, and now the team of super-power heroes the Defenders on Netflix. As a long time comic book fan, I appreciate this trend. I have always loved superheroes. As soon as I was old enough to grab things in my little infant hands, I was reaching for my older brother’s action figures.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm. We never seem to get tired of telling stories about extraordinary heroes. Superheroes are just one, uniquely modern, expression of our obsession. In America we had the frontier hero or the outlaw hero of the Wild West. Across the pond they had King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Ancient history is also full of mythical heroes and adventurers.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from Exodus is the beginning of the epic tale of one of the Bible’s greatest heroes, Moses. The Hebrew Scriptures declare Moses to be the greatest of all the prophets saying, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face (Deut 34:10).”
 Perhaps no other figure in all of Holy Scripture—with the exception of our Lord himself—looms as large. From the very beginning Moses’ story is extraordinary.

There are certain definite patterns across time and culture that the story of a great hero tends to follow. This idea was made popular by a best selling book and PBS special by Joseph Campbell called, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell wasn’t the first to notice such patterns. He was very much influenced by the work of a psychologist, Otto Rank, who wrote a book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero in which he outlined some of the parallels in the birth narratives of great heroes.

He noted that the hero tends to be the son of distinguished parents. His origin is preceded by great danger, difficulties, or obstacles. There is often a prophecy, dream, or oracle cautioning against his birth and warning danger. Typically, he is surrendered to the water or other elements to escape danger, taken in by strangers or even suckled by an animal, Finally, he discovers his true identity when he comes of age and defeats the enemy.  

Consider a couple modern examples. Harry Potter is the magical son of two wizards. Around the time of his birth there is a prophecy that he will be the one to defeat the evil wizard Voldemort. The evil wizard, threatened by the child, attempts to kill him as an infant. Harry’s parents sacrifice their lives to save him, he is raised by his non-magical aunt and uncle with no idea of his magical heritage until he receives an invitation to Hogwarts school of wizardry, and begins the journey that will result in his final confrontation, and defeat of Voldemort.

Jor-El is a scientist living on the planet Krypton. He discovers the imminent demise of his home world, but nobody believes him until it is too late. He constructs a spaceship to save his infant son Kal-El and blast him off into space just before Krypton’s destruction. The spacecraft lands in Smallville, Kansas where the baby is taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise him as their own and name him Clark. The alien rays of Earth’s son give young Clark Kent exceptional powers. No one knows the truth of his origin or his remarkable power until he comes of age to defend truth, justice, and the American way as Super-Man.

Can you see a similar pattern is Moses’ story? Moses was born during a time of great peril for his people. The tide of opinion in Egypt had turned against the Jewish people and they were oppressed and enslaved.  

Moses was the third child of his parents. Their oldest was Miriam who was destined to become a great prophetess, their second was Aaron who would be a great priest, but their third was Moses who was destined to be the savior and leader of his people.

Before Moses’ birth, Pharaoh had commanded the death of all the newborn sons of Israel. The Talmud, the Jewish commentary on scripture, suggests that the reason for his horrible decree was because his soothsayers warned him that a great champion and liberator was about to be born to the Jews. It also says that at Moses’ birth the room was full of holy light.

Fearing for his life, his mother put him in a basket and hid him in the reeds of the Nile. Baby Moses was taken in by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own. He was raised as a prince in Egypt. His real mother was secretly his nurse maid. Thus begins the epic tale of the man who would grow up to be the deliverer of Israel, the giver of the law, and the greatest of all the prophets. 

These stories captivate us because they tap into the hidden longings of our heart. They are a rumor of transcendence that cause us to be discontent with the ordinary and mundane and instead aspire to a life of heroism.  We have a sense that this world is not our true home, but that we have a father in heaven, and a great destiny. We sense that there are forces of evil that are always trying to destroy us and keep us from achieving that greatness. Finally we have the hope that we will at last triumph, that God is with us and will not allow us to fail if we trust in him.
But for all that we admire and emulate the hero, there is also part of us that knows that if we are ever to achieve such greatness, we ourselves need a hero, we need a deliverer, and champion. All of our stories speak to this longing, but I would also suggest that they direct us to the true fulfillment of all our longings, our savior Jesus Christ.

Moses knew that he wasn’t the one. He knew that he was only the opening act; the one who would prepare the way for one greater than himself.  He told his people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…[The Lord said to me]
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

Jesus is the one that Moses foretold. He is the hero with a thousand faces, the myth become fact, and the Word made flesh.  He is the child of the woman clothed with the sun, as Revelation describes him. The dragon wanted to eat her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son of whom it was said, “He will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was taken up to God and to his throne.

As Matthew’s gospel tells us, his birth was heralded by magi who read its portents in the stars. The wicked king Herod, threatened by the prophecy, had every new born son in Bethlehem slaughtered, but the family, warned in a dream, escaped to Egypt. As a man Jesus would deliver his people from bondage to sin, conquer death, and become the savior of the world.

We live in dangerous and frightening times, as indeed all Christians have before. We see injustice all around us, and want to see a deliverer like Moses come and set the people free. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We want a defender to keep us safe. We want to be heroic ourselves and stand against what is wrong and for what is right. Jesus Christ is the hero that our hearts long for. The law was given by Moses, grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Messiah Son of Joseph?

Genesis 45:1-15

It can be very beneficial to engage with and learn from thoughtful people of good will with whom we have deep disagreements. I don't mean the kind corrupt and offensive views of the Neo-Nazis and white supremacist gathered in Charlottesville this weekend. There is a difference. Such evil must be denounced without equivocation.  I am speaking of those of good will.

For instance,  I have been reading a lot of Jewish interpretation of scripture lately. In many ways, this has been a largely unexplored world of thought for me.  It is fascinating because it is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I’m particularly interested to see how Jewish theologians read the prophecies of the messiah. These texts are extremely familiar to Christians because we believe they refer to Jesus Christ, but of course, non-Christian Jews read these texts differently.

For example, some prophecies suggest a “suffering servant” who will be a sign of judgement against the people, who will come lowly and riding on a donkey, and who will lay down his life in battle against Israel’s enemies. Others suggest a victorious king, who will liberate his people, and reign forever.

These appear to be two contradictory teachings, which is why some Jewish interpretations suggest two different Messiahs extending from Jacob’s two wives Leah and Rachel. One messiah from the tribe of Joseph—Messiah ben Yosef or “Messiah son of Joseph”—a suffering servant who will lay down his life—and a second, kingly, Messiah from the house of Judah--who will bring redemption to Israel and reign forever. The second Messiah is greater than the first.

I find this idea fascinating in light of the themes that have emerged from our readings from Genesis this summer. 

Throughout the history of Israel we can see the children of Leah and the children of Rachel compete for ascendency. It is Moses and Aaron, both descendants of Leah’s son Levi, who lead the people out of exile, but it is Joshua a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph that leads the people into the promised land.

Saul a descendant of Rachel is anointed king, but the kingdom is taken from him and given to David the descendant of Leah’s son Judah.

Following the death of David’s son Solomon, the kingdom becomes divided in two with the northern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Joseph and the southern kingdom ruled by the descendants of Judah.

Jesus himself is from the tribe of Judah, he is the promised messiah, the son of David, who will unite the divided people of Israel. But both the descendants of Joseph and the descendants of David bear witness to him in their own unique way.

The concept of a Messiah son of Joseph is Jewish rather than Christian, but it resonates with the gospel. Jesus is not a descendant of Rachel’s son Joseph, but he is the adopted son of a different Joseph. Not much is known about Mary’s husband and Jesus’ guardian, but we do know that like the Joseph of Genesis, God spoke to him in his dreams. God speaks to Joseph four times in the gospel of Matthew concerning Mary’s son Jesus.

The comparisons between the story of Joseph in Genesis and Jesus’ own story, however, are even more striking. It has often been pointed out by Christian commentators that Joseph is a type of Christ. 

Consider some of the parallels between Joseph and Jesus. Both were born by God’s gracious intervention. Joseph was the son of a woman who was thought to be barren. Jesus was the son of a virgin.

Joseph was the shepherd of his father’s flock. Jesus is called the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep of his pasture.

Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. His father demonstrated his favor to Joseph by clothing him with a coat of many colors (This is the famous coat that Andrew Lloyd Webber produced a musical about, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat). Jesus was likewise the son of his Father’s love, exalted and glorified above all others. Just last week we celebrated the Transfiguration in which Jesus’ coat became dazzling white and shown with heavenly glory. The Father spoke from Heaven, “This is my Son, my chosen, Listen to him!”

Joseph proclaimed to his brothers that God showed him in a dream that he would be exalted and they would bow down and serve him. Perhaps somewhat understandably, Joseph’s brothers saw him as a precocious brat. They envied the favor their father showed him. Jesus also predicted his own glory and exaltation. His own siblings thought he was delusional and the religious leaders envied and despised him.

Joseph’s own brothers conspired to kill him. He was stripped of his garment, thrown into a pit, and handed over to wild beasts.  Joseph’s life was ultimately sparred; he was lifted out of the pit and sold to Ismaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

The chief priests and rabbis also conspired to kill Jesus. He was betrayed by one of his closest friends and handed over to gentiles for 30 pieces of silver. He was stripped of his robe and beaten. Unlike Joseph, he was cruelly executed, but just as Joseph was pulled out of the pit and delivered from death, Jesus rose from the dead conquering death.

Just as Jesus was exalted in his death and resurrection, so also was Joseph exalted. He was sold as a slave in Egypt but there he distinguished himself and was exalted to Pharoah’s right hand. What his brothers intended for evil God used for good. As a lord in Egypt, Joseph became his family’s deliverer in a time of famine. In the same way, Jesus’ betrayal and execution became the source of deliverance for all people.

The parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of Joseph are in fact so numerous that we simply do not have time to discuss them all here. As you can see, although Jesus is the Son of David, in a profound way he is also the son of Joseph. Jesus is both the victorious king and the suffering servant. Both dimensions of the messianic expectation find their completion in him.

He is both the chosen and rejected, the cursed and the blessed.

What can look on the surface like two contradictory concepts—suffering and exaltation, defeat and victory—are unified in one individual. What can easily be seen as two individuals, two messiahs, is actually one. Jesus came first lowly and riding on a donkey, he came to suffer reproach, to be rejected, and to die. But Jesus will come again in glory as the King of Kings to reunite the people of Israel and to reign forever. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Unloved Wife

Genesis 29:15-28

One of the biggest obstacles modern people have to reading the Bible is that the people and settings of the stories seem so foreign to us. When we read Genesis for instance, we find ourselves transported into a time and place where being the first-born son means everything, where women are bartered like property, and it is not at all unusual for a man to have multiple wives. It is offensive to our sensibilities. What relevance could these stories have to people here and now? Haven’t we outgrown this kind of stuff?

First, by way of preface for today’s lesson, let me start by saying that when it comes to the cultural norms of the ancient world the bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, the stories are just telling us what the world in that time and place was like, they aren’t necessarily being held up as a model for how things should be today.

In fact, if we actually observe how these stories unfold, the Bible presents the systems of polygamy and patriarchy as a complete disaster. They lead only to heartbreak, jealousy, and violence.

Secondly, we should be honest about whether or not we really have outgrown this kind of stuff. Although our culture is much different from the ancient culture of the Bible, human nature really hasn’t changed all that much.

In our story today, there are two sisters, the daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel. Our translation says, “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel.” This just dosen’t get it right, and so you actually miss one of the main points. Most translations say that Leah’s eyes were weak or delicate. In other words, Leah had an eye disorder. She was either cross-eyed or she had some kind of astigmatism that made her squint. It would be more accurate to say, “Leah was an awkward looking wallflower, but Rachel was a real knock out with a killer body.” Naturally, Jacob likes the pretty one!

Aren’t you glad that we have outgrown this sort of thing, and we now live in a culture where the value and worth of women is not based on their physical appearance? Maybe this story is a bit more current than we care to admit…

Leah, lived her whole life in the shadow of her more beautiful and alluring younger sister. Jacob was utterly infatuated with Rachel, but Leah was invisible. Laban has to trick Jacob into marrying her. This is a bit of poetic justice by the way. Jacob, who tricked his father and stole his brother’s blessing is getting a taste of his own medicine. It’s hard not to see Laban’s explanation as a jab, “around here we don’t give to the younger before the elder.”

Jacob does eventually get to marry Rachel too, however, in return for another seven years of labor. These two sisters were married to one man, and they competed for his affection, but the text tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more. Leah, was desperate for her husband’s approval, but he loved Rachel more even though Leah was the sister that gave him more sons.

Jacob may have favored Rachel, but God favored Leah. The text says, “When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he enabled her to conceive, but Rachel remained childless.”

Leah was the girl that nobody wanted, but God loved her and he blessed her. God doesn’t judge by the same standards that the world judges. He doesn’t value the things that the world values. God is in the habit of taking the side of the powerless, the weak, and despised of the world.

Leah’s unhappy marriage should seem somewhat familiar to us from a couple chapters back. It is surprisingly reminiscent of Jacob’s upbringing. Although Jacob was the chosen of God, his father Isaac loved his twin brother Esau more.

Esau famously despised his birthright and handed it over to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Jacob and Esau are not so unalike in this regard. Jacob was born with the spiritual blessing of God, destined to be the bearer of God’s promise, and yet he despised this blessing and instead sought what his brother had. He wanted the inheritance and status that came with being the firstborn.

Esau had what Jacob wanted, his father’s love, his birthright, and his blessing. Rachel had what Leah wanted, the love and favor of her husband Jacob.
Both were able take what they wanted by deception, but it ultimately left them unfulfilled.
Isn’t it ironic? Leah and Jacob are so much alike, but Jacob only has eyes for Rachel. Leah is the wife that God provided, but she is not the wife that Jacob wanted.

God favors Leah first and more abundantly with children, but he doesn’t forget to show mercy to Rachel too. Although she struggles with infertility, she eventually has a son—who unsurprisingly is Jacob’s favorite—Joseph with his coat of many colors.

Together these two sisters, Leah and Rachel, are the mothers of the nation of Israel. We can trace their lineage and see how this story continues to ripple throughout the rest of the Biblical narrative.

Israel is God’s chosen people, the bearer of God’s blessing for the world, but they despise this birthright. They want instead what all the other nations have, a warrior king who will bring them glory and riches. In concession to this demand, God gives them King Saul, a descendant of Rachel. Like Rachel, he is very attractive with a very impressive stature. He is everything a nation would want in a king, but it all goes wrong and he is rejected by God.

In his place, God chooses one of the sons of Jesse—a descendant of Leah’s son Judah—named David. Of all Jesse’s son’s David is the least outwardly impressive, he is a young shepherd boy tending the flock, but God says,  “the LORD sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

It is from the Lineage of Leah, the tribe of Judah, the House of David, that God brings the Messiah Jesus Christ. The people are waiting for a worldly king and champion, someone to thrash their enemies, and restore the worldly glory and splendor of Israel. They want what Rome has, power, status, and the admiration of the world. Instead, they get a suffering Messiah of whom it is written,

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.He was despised and rejected by mankind,a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.Like one from whom people hide their faceshe was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 

Jesus Christ was the messiah that God provided, but he was not the Messiah that Israel wanted. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

An Open Door in Heaven

Genesis 28:10-19a

Last week’s Old Testament lesson introduced us to two brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were very much opposites in temperament and struggled against one another even in the womb.  Although by the law and custom it was the first born who is the heir, the Lord tells the mother, Rebekah, that the older will serve the younger. The Lord’s favor falls on Jacob. 

Despite this, we learn from the text that Isaac their father loved Esau more. It isn’t hard to imagine how this would make Jacob feel. From his birth Jacob’s ambition and competitiveness are evident. He was born clutching his brother’s heel as if he was determined to be first. While Jacob is willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants, Esau despises his birthright and hands it over to his brother for a bowl of soup.  Jacob isn’t content with just that, however, but he even goes as far as to disguise himself as Esau and steal his father’s blessing out from under his brother. 

Cheated of his birthright and his father’s blessing Esau is enraged and prepared to kill Jacob.  Rebekah, in order to save Jacob’s life, convinces Isaac to send him away to her brother’s house to obtain a wife. With his father’s blessing, he departs on the long and treacherous journey.

Jacob finally has what he has always wanted. All his life has been a struggle. He has cheated his way to the top, but now he is alone wandering through the wilderness forced to flee from his home. He has lived the life of a loner by his cunning and stealth. His only ally has been his mother and now he is separated from her and will never see her again. This is where our reading today begins.
The sun sets below the horizon. Everything is dark. He lays his head down on a stone and sleeps.

Up until this moment, the text has given us no indication that God has ever spoke to Jacob. Jacob acts in such a way that shows that he is completely ignorant of the God of his father even though he has had God’s favor from birth.  He acts as if it were Jacob against the world, as if he had to fight for everything he had. One commentator says that “Jacob’s expectations of encountering Yahweh somewhere between Beer-sheba and Haran were about as great as Saul’s expectations of meeting Christ between Jerusalem and Damascus!”

Now however, as he dreams, God reveals himself in a dramatic way. Suddenly he sees a vision of a great ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending upon it and God standing beside him!

The Lord repeats the promise he made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and assures him, “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.”

In the Bible and in much of ancient culture, sleep and the state of dreaming, is considered to be a kind liminal space between this world and the spiritual realm.  It was believed that God spoke to people through their dreams.

In our state of dreaming, as our conscious mind sleeps, we become conscious of subterranean, hidden, realities that we are often unconscious of in our waking state.
Ironically it is in his state of unconsciousness that Jacob becomes conscious of the presence of God. He awakens in more ways than one and declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
There is more to the world than meets the eye. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes, 

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

Sometimes we feel alone and forsaken in the world, that God is distant, and that heaven is some place far from earth on the outskirts of the universe, and yet God is beside us and Heaven lies just behind our everyday experience. We can’t normally see this reality and we don’t always perceive it, but we are surrounded with a great cloud of witnesses and innumerable heavenly hosts.

The vision that God gave to Jacob shows that there is an open door between Heaven and Earth. There is a communication between God and man. The angels—the messengers of God—descend and ascend on a ladder whose top is in the heavens but whose base touches the earth.

Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have seen in this vision an image of prayer. We ascend to God with our prayers and worship, we lift up our hearts to the Lord, and we have communion and fellowship in his presence.  But God also descends to us. Although God is high above, he has regard for his lowly creatures. He descends to us with his guidance, his correction, his love, and blessing.

What if instead of believing we have to claw our way to the top and step over our brother, we trusted in the power of God’s presence, and were content with his promise and blessing? What if we rested in the Lord as our rock and foundation, even as Jacob laid his head upon the stone? Would we not see and understand that heaven is always open to us and God is beside us?

Jacob’s vision is a symbol of God’s covenant faithfulness. It is an assurance of God’s intention to fulfill the promise he made with Abraham. God intends to make a way for fallen humanity to return to him through Jacob’s offspring. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jacob. In the gospel of John he connects himself with the vision that Jacob saw saying,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

 Being both God and man Christ is the true bridge between heaven and earth. In his very person the two are reconciled. He is God with us, God beside us.  He is the one who descended from heaven in order that we may ascend with him.  Through the blood of his cross the doors of heaven are open to cheaters like Jacob and sinners like us.

Alleluia to Jesus who died on the tree,and has raised up a ladder of mercy for me!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Elder Shall Serve the Younger

If you have been following along in our readings from Genesis week to week you may be noticing certain patterns.

First, we have the infertility of the biblical mothers. God promised to make Abraham a great nation. His wife Sara was unable to conceive, but miraculously, in her old age, God grants Sarah a child, Isaac. Now in today’s reading we hear that Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was also barren. The Lord hears the prayer of Isaac on behalf of his wife and they conceive. 

This is a theme that repeats throughout the Bible. Many of the great heroes of the Bible are born of infertile mothers. Their births are miraculous. This is true of Isaac’s mother Sarah, Jacob’s mother Rebekah, Joseph’s mother Rachel, Sampson’s mother, Samuel’s mother Hannah, and John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. All of these stories foreshadow the miraculous birth of Jesus, whose mother was not merely infertile, but a virgin!

But the theme I want to focus on this morning, is the theme of sibling rivalry. We have already seen the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac, now we read of the conflict between Jacob and Esau.

 Any parent knows that siblings don’t always get along! They bicker and they argue with one another, but they also often compete with one another. Sometimes such competition is a healthy and friendly rivalry, but other times it is bitter, corrosive, and even deadly. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that siblings behave the same way in the Bible, but there is such a definite pattern to these sibling rivalries that we must conclude that something beyond natural family conflict is being represented.

It was the custom in the ancient world, including Israel, for the firstborn son to inherit before his siblings. The firstborn son is given pride of place. This is called the law of primogeniture, and the Bible mostly takes it for granted. The odd thing, however, is how consistently this custom is undermined in these stories of sibling rivalries.

In these stories, it is almost always the second that enjoys God’s blessing above the first.  In this morning’s reading God declares, “The elder shall serve the younger.” God speaks through the prophet Malachi more starkly, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” God chooses the second, but he rejects the first.

I’m not just saying this because I’m the second born of twins either! There is a pattern.

The first sibling rivalry in the Bible is between Cain and Abel. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice but he rejected Cain’s, which provoked Cain to murder his younger brother.  Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, but Isaac was the son of promise. God also chose Jacob’s youngest son Joseph above his older brothers. 

In the story of the prodigal son the oldest brother has always been faithful, but it is the younger son—who returns after squandering his inheritance—that receives the lavish love of his father. 

It doesn’t seem quite fair does it? God seems to be depriving the elder son of what is rightfully his by law and custom. So why do we find this pattern so often throughout the Bible?

The reason is because it is a type. A type is a kind of prophetic symbol. It is a person or thing from the past that foreshadows a person or thing in the future; it is an earthly reality that corresponds to a heavenly reality. We have already seen in the last couple weeks how the binding of Isaac was a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was a type of Christ and the Church.

Saint Paul wrote that the stories of the Old Testament occurred as types and they are written for our instruction. (1 Cor 10:11)

He identified Ishmael as a type of those born of the flesh and living under the law and Isaac as a type of those born of the spirit and set free by the Gospel. This basic pattern holds true in general for biblical stories about the struggle between the younger and the elder. It is especially apparent in the story of Jacob and Esau.

These two were twins but they couldn’t have been more different. Esau was a real guy’s guy. He was strong and athletic, an accomplished hunter. He spent most of his time outdoors away from home. He was the favorite of his father Isaac who enjoyed eating the game he caught.

Esau was the jock, but Jacob was the shy introverted type. He was a homebody and a bit of a mama’s boy. While Esau is noted for his physical prowess, Jacob is noted for his intelligence and cunning.

Esau is the first born and the description of him is striking. He is almost bestial, red, and covered in hair even as a baby. He represents our lower nature which is driven by appetite and animal instinct. He is the natural man which cares nothing for spiritual things. He is the mind set on the flesh which is hostile to God.  

His color, described as red, is also significant. In fact he is often called Edom, which simply means red, not only because of his pigmentation but the mess of red pottage he sold his birthright to obtain. Edom comes from the same Hebrew root word that Adam does. Adam is also named ‘red’ after the red clay of the earth that he was made of. Esau represents the first man, Adam, who was made from the earth.

Jacob is born second, after Esau, and comes clutching his heel. His name means “the supplanter,” because although younger, he was destined to rule over his brother. He is a type of the second man, Christ, who was born of the spirit from above. Although the Son of God was from everlasting, Jesus comes after Adam. While Adam bares the curse, Jesus—the second Adam—bears the blessing.

This isn’t to say that Jacob is all virtuous and that his motives are always pure. As we shall see, Jacob himself is a divided person. Jacob, the supplanter, is later changed to Israel, which means “may God prevail.” He is both the one who struggles but also the one who at last is victorious. His brother Esau is the reflection of his own lower nature which he must overcome.

These two brothers, the flesh and the spirit, the lower nature and the higher nature, the first Adam and the Second Adam, were struggling within one womb. Their struggle was so intense that Rebekah said,
“If it is to be this way, why do I live?”

Don’t we sometimes feel the same? Don’t we sometimes feel these two principles at war within ourselves? For what the flesh wants is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit wants is opposed to the flesh. They are opposed to each other, and so you do not do what you want to do. 

We feel ourselves divided and at war with ourselves. Sometimes it feels like our lower nature is stronger. We can’t win against it and so we try to outsmart it.

Maybe we devise certain strategies to stay one step ahead of our wayward urges.  We hide the Halloween in the cupboard so as not to be tempted… Sometimes our lower nature needs to be placated with the promise of a reward before we do the right thing. Its like a child who only eats her dinner because she knows there will be ice cream if she does.

To those of us caught up in the battle, God reminds us, “The elder shall serve the younger.” Although our flesh sometimes feels so much stronger than our spiritual nature, the lower nature was made to serve the higher. Despite the appearances, “the one shall be stronger than the other.”

Saint Paul says, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you… If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”