A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 27, 2014
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39
History credits P.T. Barnum for the line, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but most of his friends denied he ever said it. Here’s something he did say about the great masses who came to see his circus shows: “People like to be humbugged when, as in my case, there’s no humbuggery except that which consists in throwing up sky-rockets and issuing flaming bills and advertisements to attract public attention to shows which all acknowledge are always clean, moral, instructive, elevating, and give back to their patrons in every case several times their money’s worth.” In my mind, the questionable version at least gets style points for being more flamboyant.
We’ve walked with Jacob these past few weeks and so far he’s had the look of a trickster. Now the tables have been turned giving him now the feel of a sucker in this story. There’s good news in all this that the first half of our lives do not always condemn our outcome if we gain wisdom and realize God is doing something larger than anything we can imagine. It gives us a sense of hope, don’t you think?
Bill Moyers claims this story reads more like a Greek tragedy or a television soap opera because this is a story about the trickster finally meeting his match! [“What goes around comes around,” we say with a knowing wink.] Imagine a deal is struck and seven years of work are patiently offered in good faith; then imagine Jacob’s embarrassment in waking up from a long night’s wedding celebration and his honeymoon night with his new bride, only to wake up to discover he had slept with Rachel’s older sister and she was his wife, not Rachel!
Hard to believe? You’ve seen those Middle Eastern veils … the Bible does tell us Leah’s one beauty was her eyes. Uncle Laban gave Jacob the trickster (his future son-in-law) a healthy dose of Middle Eastern “bait and switch” at the altar. It was one old trickster playing the younger.
Maybe by citing Leah’s one beautiful trait was the Bible’s delicate way of suggesting she was plain or simply ordinary in contrast to her sister’s striking beauty. When I was in Lebanon a few years ago, a Lebanese man proudly bragged, “The most beautiful women in the world are Lebanese.” Admittedly, Middle Eastern women are very beautiful and the veil would aptly showcase the beauty of the eyes.
We’re never told what Leah’s inner thoughts might have been over Jacob’s favoritism toward Rachel’s greater feminine beauty. But it’s obvious the focus of the story highlights Jacob’s belief that the rule of the first-borns didn’t always apply. By living the trickster life, walking in life as though he could walk between the raindrops, his needs were simple. He wanted nothing more than to marry Rachel, the love of his life. It’s a complicated, ironic story driven by the rule of the first-borns.
But let’s not miss the fact that Jacob was the product of his upbringing. He learned the rules well and was a master of deceit. He was a trickster and wasn’t afraid to ignore what was right to bend the rules in his favor. Jacob had learned the lifestyle of lies and deceit from his dear mother. She wanted him to be the one who would carry the name and blessing of God into the future. So she conspired with her fair-haired boy how he could trick both his older, dim-witted brother and his dim-sighted father out of what should have been Esau’s birthright.
While Rebekah loved and preferred Jacob, Isaac’s favorite was Esau, the rightful heir. The Bible speaks plainly of the parents’ preference of one son over the other, “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28, NRSV). Scripted into their childhood was a parental battle over which of the sons would be the best and the brightest and who would receive the favored blessing of God.
Already we see the signs that Jacob was changing … he was now a man working to escape his past trying to change his way of life. Jacob had always been the fast-thinking one who could turn things in his favor. But love was drawing him to a new life and he was growing up and something in him had shifted.
A lifelong con has a hard time changing old habits. Despite the revelation he received in the dream David shared last week, Jacob wasn’t yet fully reformed. But in this stage of his journey, the young con met up with an older craftier con. The trap was soon set and Laban set in motion 14 years of Jacob’s committed labor in order to marry Rachel, Jacob’s true love.
All of us know there’s a terrible price to be paid when one wants to reform his or her life. What Jacob demonstrated in all this was his willingness to make an intentional break with his past. Once a con, now Jacob was doing the hard work of letting go of all that he had known as a young man. After being humbled by his uncle’s trick to save his oldest daughter’s pride, he submitted himself to this conniving uncle, and labored for another seven years; Jacob demonstrated how utterly serious he was as he suffered his pain quietly and went back to work so Rachel, his beloved, could be his.
What was happening was he was trying to outgrow the manipulative young man he had been in order to grow fully into his manhood. We’ve been hard on Jacob the last few weeks. It’s this story that sheds light on the larger story of Jacob’s life. Jacob was now changing and trying to become a man of substance. How hard is it to shed the reputation we’ve carved out in life in our past? Can people grow? Can they choose a new life?
In the harsh lessons of life, Jacob was learning that God’s grace was something he couldn’t manipulate or control. It was something that came to him freely like the air that he breathed. He had pulled no strings to get it. God gave it freely to him like the dream itself. What Jacob was discovering was that God was at work trying to bless him into goodness.
C.S. Lewis, in his last published book, The Four Loves, distinguishes between “need love” and “gift love.” “Need-love” is born of emptiness and is always trying to suck substitutes in to fill that which is missing. “Gift love” is born of abundance and is like an artisan well, the more you draw from it, the more it has to give. The story of Jacob is the story of one man trying to make the shift from one kind of love to another.
The trickster had pulled his last trick and God was penetrating all his defenses. What Jacob was learning was that God didn’t need him to manipulate the world so that God might bless the world. In fact, all those tricks, all the lying and cheating and deceitfulness were hindrances that God had to overcome before God could use Jacob to bless the world.
Some things are worth waiting for. What he learned from the commitment of loving Rachel was that the best things in life come when one gave the deepest part of our soul to get it. Harvard Professor Gordon Allport, eminent psychologist of the middle of the twentieth century, claimed in lectures delivered at Yale: “The possession of long-range goals, regarded as central to one’s personal existence, distinguishes the human being from the animal, the adult from the child, and in many cases the healthy personality from the sick.”
In spite of all his faults, Jacob was admirable when it came to understanding gift love. He then knew what he wanted in life. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.”
What he learned from the commitment of loving Rachel was that the best things in life come when one gives the deepest part of their soul to get it. Remember the Gospel reading we read earlier:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his great joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-45, NRSV).
Jacob came to the end of his devices and all that was left was the one thing he couldn’t gain by manipulation. Funny how when God finally gets our attention and we realize God is trying to do great and wonderful things through us and wants to bless all of creation with our existence in the world. What we discover is that God is not interested in our abilities to manipulate the world. What we discover is that God wants to radically transform us from the inside out, making us more like God than the world.
When you get your eye on that one great prize that you’ve discovered and you’re willing to pay anything for it, God is ready to bless you beyond your wildest ideas.
 From The Bridgeport Standard, October 2, 1885
 Bill Moyers, Genesis, A Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday, 1996, 249
 From “A Conversation with John Claypool,” Baptists Today, March 2002
 Bruce Prewer, “This Beats Mills and Boon,” http://www.bruceprewer.com/DocA/46SUN17.htm
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).