Sermon Text: Genesis 25: 19-34
Today I will begin something I’ve never done in my 8 years of ordained ministry. We will embark on a four weeklong sermon series and it will focus on our Old Testament lessons as they follow the story of Jacob. Jacob is a very crucial person in the Old Testament. His story spans over one half of the book of Genesis. He is the one whose name will be changed by God to Israel, and his 12 sons will become the 12 tribes of Israel. He’s a pretty important guy. But Jacob, as we will see, is also one of the least likely servants of God in scripture.
The year is 1977 and Star Wars: A New Hope is taking the nation by storm. In the movie a 35 year old Harrison Ford plays the character Han Solo, everyone’s favorite space smuggler. Han Solo is reckless, sarcastic, and witty. He’s a materialist, a self-promoter, and an opportunist. Despite all of his risk taking he is very much interested in his self-preservation, so he’ll shoot first and ask questions later. For instance, in preparation for the movie’s climatic battle, Han refuses to help Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and the rebel forces, presumably because it is not in his best interest. That’s the thumbnail sketch of Han Solo.
Can anything good come from morally and ethically ambiguous people like Han Solo? Can someone who is totally in it for themselves, someone who is a devious trickster and wanted dead by many in the universe be a force for good? Well, spoiler alert on this 43 year old blockbuster movie, the answer is yes. Han Solo comes back with his Millennium Falcon and saves the day by help Luke so he can blow up the Death Star.
Of course, that’s fiction set long ago in a galaxy far, far away. That’s Hollywood screenwriting and George Lucas giving us a happy ending. How does this work in scripture? Can God use a trickster and a dirty rotten scoundrel to be a holy ambassador on earth?
Enter Jacob, the Han Solo of the Old Testament. Jacob is Isaac and Rebekah’s youngest son who brings trouble even before he’s born. The book of Genesis tells us that Jacob and his twin brother Esau quarrel with each other in the womb. Esau is born first and Jacob is right on his heels. Literally. He is born with his hand grasping Esau’s foot.
These will not be twins who dress in matching outfits and go everywhere together, who can feel each other’s emotions and pain from miles away. No, these two men couldn’t be more different. Esau, the firstborn, is hairy and brawny. He’s a hunter, daddy’s favorite because Isaac really enjoys the game he hunts. On the other hand, Jacob is smooth skinned and spends more time in the tent than in the fields. He is a momma’s boy, and Rebekah likes him best because God told her that “the elder would serve the younger.”
Jacob’s name means supplanter, or heel. He will spend much of his life taking the place of Esau, supplanting the brother whose heel he first grabbed. You also get the sense that Jacob is quite the a heel. In professional wrestling the heel is the bad guy, the wrestler that the crowd loves to hate and boo because of their antics and their code of conduct. That is definitely who Jacob is.
We see Jacob’s character in the story today. A hungry Esau, who may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of hot lentil soup. Jacob leverages a favorable situation to get the best of his brother. And a birthright is no small thing—we’re talking 2/3rds of Isaac’s property once he dies. That’s a significant amount of wealth to trade away from some stewed legumes.
The wording of the story looks really bad here if we read the words literally, Jacob is extorting Esau as he’s on death’s door. But it’s more likely an idiom. Esau isn’t starving to death after a hunt, he is just really hungry and he can’t see past his short term needs for the good of his long range future. He is really cavalier about his birthright. But even with all that said, this is not a good trick for Jacob to play on his brother and it shows his cunning personality. He can size up the long range implications and scheme to achieve them.
Of course, the most despicable action comes later, in a story we will not read, when Jacob steals a blessing intended for Esau that is given by his blind and aging father. With his mother’s help, Jacob prepares a meal for Isaac, dresses in Esau’s clothes, and covers himself with lamb’s wool to be like his hairy brother. Isaac is fooled by the ruse and blesses Jacob before Esau can return from his hunt with the food Isaac originally requested.
You may ask, “What’s the big deal? Can’t he bless Esau too?” I’ll tell you. This wasn’t just a blessing spoken by Isaac. This was the original blessing spoken by God to Abraham, passed on to Isaac, and now passed on to Jacob. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”
That’s the beginning of Jacob’s story, a story that we will pick up next week when he’s fled from home because Esau wants to kill him. It’s hard to blame Esau. After all, Jacob has now tricked, deceived, and weaseled his way into both the birthright and blessing that should go to the oldest son, not the youngest. But Jacob, with his mother’s help, was willing to perform these schemes on his father and brother.
This is who God chooses?!?
It’s impossible to defend Jacob’s actions. The man has no scruples. But let’s take note of three things about this ancient ancestor of the faith.
First, Jacob is a man possessed in obtaining God’s blessing. From the get go God chooses Jacob, but Jacob will use every tool in his toolbox to secure that blessing. At one point the Hebrew word to describe Jacob “tam,” meaning whole or complete. And while Jacob is certainly not a man of integrity, this word may refer to his understanding and value of faith and life with God. Jacob will develop a constant awareness of God which becomes “perfect and loyal service.” As we see here, and also later in his life, Jacob will stop at nothing to gain God’s blessing—even to the point of risking death.
Second, Jacob becomes the namesake for Israel, and there’s some important comparisons between the person and the nation. Most notably, God doesn’t always use the obvious candidate to bring forth blessing. Often the overlooked, second sons are used carry on the story of faith while the physically superior are cast aside. We see this with Jacob, Joseph, King David, Abel, even Isaac. As a nation lifted up by God, Israel will constantly struggle against bigger, wealthier, and more powerful kingdoms like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. All the while the mission of God’s blessing will remain the central focus of who the people of Israel are.
But my greatest takeaway, the one that makes Jacob my absolute favorite person in the Bible, is this: If God can use a man as crooked as Jacob to show forth blessing and Gospel, then God can use anyone, including you and me. Jacob teaches us that we do not need to be perfect in order to be a servant of God. We do not need to pass a litmus test of faith for God to use us. God sees the rough places, the cracks, and grabs hold of us anyway. That is what we call grace. I don’t know if we can see a clearer example then Jacob.
So that is the primer on Jacob, the Han Solo of the book of Genesis. Over the next three weeks we will follow the story of this great patriarch and see what we can learn about serving God. For today, remember: If God can use a scoundrel like Jacob, God can certainly use you and me. AMEN