July 13, 2014
The fairy tale love story of Rebekah and Isaac that we looked at last week did not end with “and they lived happily ever after.” We just read how it took a bitter turn that lasted the rest of their lives and played out through the whole second half of Genesis. In Genesis 50:20 after Jacob’s death, his son Joseph told his brothers who had sold him as a slave, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
Knowing God’s covenant promise to Abraham was to be continued through them, twenty years of childlessness stressed the faith of Rebekah and Isaac. When they did have the twin boys – Esau and Jacob – sibling rivalry and parental favoritism undermined their love story until what Isaac and Rebekah shared was bitterness from Esau’s Canaanite wives (Genesis 26:35).
The story of Isaac and Rebekah as parents of Esau and Jacob is an eloquent if awkward dance of God’s sovereign will and deeply flawed human free will. God chose Isaac and Rebekah to continue the covenant promise to Abraham, and God chose to keep them childless for 20 years. With love and deep empathy for Rebekah’s anxiety, Isaac prayed for her to have a child. Probably many times through those 20 years.
God answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah began a difficult pregnancy. In distress, Rebekah inquired of the Lord to understand what was happening. She received the oracle foretelling the struggles that would continue between her children for generations interminable. God did not just know she was carrying twins; God gave her these rival twins as part of God’s plan to bless all humanity through Abraham’s descendants.
Jacob comes off as a sneak and a cheat. But he knew the value of the birthright and blessing of the covenant. He was willing to swindle, cheat and lie to get it. Esau discounted its value so much he was said to despise it and was willing to sell it for a bowl of “red stuff.”
Today we would say the favoritism of Isaac toward Esau and Rebekah toward Jacob was dysfunctional. Rebekah even collaborated with Jacob to not only cheat her other son, but deceive Isaac who had loved her so passionately. Yet God used all of this to propel the covenant blessing forward.
We shall see in the next couple of weeks the disastrous effects of jealousy, favoritism, and deception. Yet, justice prevailed, spiritual sensitivity was sharpened, and covenant blessing proceeded, not in spite of but through the deeply flawed choices and actions of all.
For millennia, theologians and philosophers have debated and speculated whether humans have free will or is all determined by God’s sovereign will or even blind fate. The Jacob and Esau story does not resolve that issue but invites us to marvel at how God’s sovereign will and even deeply flawed human free will fit together. As responsible, free moral agents we trust God to work not just in spite of our flaws but through them.
We may recognize this in world events seen in the sweep of human history over the centuries, but we have trouble discerning God’s hand in the midst of a present catastrophe.
The cruel, ancient empires all collapsed: Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Rome, as did Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But the chaotic conflicts that are shredding Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan today defy even knowing who to cheer for, much less figuring out how the United States or the international community can or should respond.
I have found an immensely powerful perspective in the Hebrew Prophet Habakkuk. He began by complaining to God about the rampant injustice among his own people.
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. (1:2‑3)
God answered that judgment was coming from the Babylonians (Chaldeans).
For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. (1:6-7)
Habakkuk objected to God using those who are so evil as agents of justice.
Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One? You shall not die. O Lord, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they? (1:12-13)
God answered to be patient because judgment would come to the Babylonians too.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (2:3-4)
Habakkuk affirmed his trust in God when he still couldn’t see the pieces fitting together.
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. (3:17-18)
From Habakkuk I am learning to be patient with an always fluid flow of world events and watch for every expression of justice and peace as pointers toward the Kingdom of God in our messy world. I am learning to trust God’s sovereign will to fit together with the deeply flawed pieces of human free will.
Every congregation’s interim journey between pastors has many moving parts, and this church is no exception. Many of them seem to have nothing to do with each other. Some are planned and some seem random. Some seem to take steps toward the future and others slip back toward the past. Some are apparent but many are hidden until the last minute. As we reflect on Jacob and Esau today, I think we can learn as a congregation together to trust God to fit the pieces together.
During my time with you informal conversations about possibilities of merging with other congregations became serious exploration with Bethany Christian Church. We did a few things together: Trunk or Treat, children’s Christmas pageant, fellowship dinner. Both churches formed Merger Committees. Our Merger Committee met several times and envisioned many mission opportunities in Odessa, and concluded we could do almost any of these whether the merger happened or not. Of course, it didn’t but that committee became the Mission Task Force and continues to pursue our future mission.
We have taken some beginning steps toward greater mission presence in Odessa, starting with last summer’s service day. We have stepped up involvement with Meals on Wheels. The spaghetti day and resultant gift of $5,000 to Hope House was wonderful fellowship of service for our folk, a positive opportunity for our community, great help to Hope House which resulted in wide awareness of our church as committed to the good of Odessa.
Our shared interim journey and the search and call process are approaching climactic culmination. I hope you are all praying with earnest anticipation for God to fit all of the pieces together.
Last July 7, when I had just started this journey with you, I shared my testimony and told you how God used a fight in the church we belonged to in Illinois to start the process of calling me to pastoral ministry. God used another fight in the church I was serving in Wisconsin to bring us to Texas and into the Disciples. Both of those were painful experiences. I believe the combatants of their own free will chose words and actions that were not in harmony with God. Yet, I believe God worked in those events, not only for our family but for the others who were affected. We often quote from Romans 8:26-29 when facing difficult circumstances, perhaps too glibly.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.
Rather than superficial assurance, I see this passage as not only a call to prayer, but to intense prayer beyond words, depending on the Holy Spirit’s intercession.
Rather than puzzling over how God’s sovereign will works without overriding my free will, this passage directs my attention to the purpose of God’s sovereign will: that I will be conformed to the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. How my perspective changes when instead of complaining about what is uncertain or uncomfortable, I focus on how God is shaping me to be a little more like Jesus every day!Yes I have free will as a gift from God. That makes me a responsible moral agent who must live with the consequences of my decisions and actions. I am also affected by the freely chosen decisions and actions of others. However, our free will is not powerful enough to thwart the gracious sovereign will of God. So I am learning to trust God’s sovereign will to fit together with the deeply flawed pieces of human free will.