Unexpected gifts

First of all, I'd like to apologize for any undue confusion I might have caused with today's bulletin cover. Officially, Christmas-in-July doesn't start until next Friday. However, in light of today's topic, a Christmas-in-July sermon seemed appropriate.

I know that a lot of you think that Christmas-in-July is a silly tradition, but there are a number of reasons for it. July is when retailers begin getting ready for Christmas. It gives Australians a chance to sing all those carols about snow and have them make sense. But most of all, since we have set aside one month of the year for remembering Jesus' birth, sermons about the nativity tend to come only in December. It's good to have a little Christmas in which we remember Jesus' birth in the off-season.

This sermon, however, is not about the nativity. Not directly, anyway. It IS about gifts. Yes, I know, Christmas isn't about gifts. In this case, however, gifts were directly responsible for the continuation of the messianic line and the creation of Israel. So while Christmas isn't about gifts, these gifts eventually brought about the first Christmas.

Jacob wasn't exactly an innocent fellow. Even before he was born, he fought with his twin brother, Esau. His first recorded action was to buy his brother's birthright for a bowl of soup. Later in life, when his father was legally blind and bedbound, he deceived his father and stole Esau's blessing. When Jacob went to work for Laban in exchange for Rachel's hand in marriage, he got a taste of his own medicine. Laban treicked him into marrying Leah instead. Jacob had already consumated the marriage with Leah before he realized that she wasn't Rachel. Laban was every bit the swindler Jacob was, but every time Laban changed the arrangement he had with Jacob, Jacob came out on top, and Jacob ended up becoming tremendously wealthy off of Laban.

On one level, it's a story of a lovable yegg, an honorable thief, swindling others, getting his just dessert, and in the end, coming out ahead anyway. But if we look at Jacob's life from the perspective of biblical history, it takes on a whole new dimension.

God gave Rachel a prophecy about her sons. Both would become great nations. We know today that Jacob became Israel and Esau became Edom, which, centuries later, was absorbed into the arab race.

God intended to make Jacob into Israel from the beginning. But for this to happen, a number of other things had to happen first. If Jacob was to be the legitimate heir of the covenant made with Abraham and Isaac, his claim had to be uncontested by his family. Now that was not going to happen easily. Isaac favored Esau, not knowing the migraines that Esau and his heathen wives would cause him later in life. Isaac wanted Esau to be the heir of his promise, but God knew what kind of man Esau was and exactly what he thought of that promise. To Esau, it was worth less than a bowl of stew. It had already been promised to Jacob, Jacob kew its value, and to Jacob it had to go. By buying the birthright with a bowl of soup, he became legally and morally entitled to that legacy no matter what objections Esau may have raised in the future. Esau gave up his birthright of his own free will, and he knew it.

With the birthright, and with God having clearly stated that he would be the greater of the brothers, Jacob was entitled to his father's blessing. yet Jacob still favored Esau and wasn't about to give Jacob the blessing of the firstborn. It could be argued that Jacob was only taking what he should have had in the first place. His methods were questionable, yes, but the deed was necessary. Once the blessing was given, Isaac's faith in the Lord to bring his blessing to pass was such that he recognized Jacob as the one now entitled to it. This was important because it legitimized Jacob's place in God's plan in the eyes of Isaac, and thus settled the matter for all time.

It is important to remember that neither of these things were earned by Jacob. They were gifts from God promised to him from before his birth. He only had to work a little to receive them.

Jacob was now in a position to become the father of his country. Right? Not quite. He lacked one important thing- a wife! His kids would need a mother. We all know what happened. Jacob fell in love with Rachel and as a dowry, worked for her father, Laban, for seven years. But on the wedding night, her big sister Leah took her place. Jacob still loved Rachel and so he stayed and worked for Laban another seven years. He finally got to marry Rachel, but his marriage to Leah was still valid. Both women had sons by Jacob, and when they couldn't get pregnant themselves, they had their servants stand in for them. All in all, Jacob had four wives.

Now please don't think that I am advocating polygamy. Not at all. I have preached previously about the power of sex and what happens when it's done wrong. There's a popular joke that the punishment for bigamy is having two wives. It seems like a dig against marriage, but consider what usually happens when two women share a husband? They quickly grow to hate each other. It happened with Sarah and Hagar. It happened with Samuel's mother. multiple spouses are a recipe for trouble, but in this case, God allowed it. He didn't CAUSE it, but he allowed Laban's trickery to fall upon Jacob so that there might be twelve sons and therefore twelve patriarchs born to Jacob.

So now things are set up for the nation of Israel to come into being. But it would take a fortune to feed a family of seventeen people. (eighteen, technically, but Rachel died as Benjamin was born) God used Laban's cheating nature against him. He tried to get Jacob to work for him several more years without having to pay him a lot, but each time he thought he gave Jacob the raw end of the deal, God, both utilizing Jacob's cleverness and manipulating the reproduction of the sheep, made the deal come out in Jacob's favor. Every time Laban changed the terms of the deal to favor himself, he only ended up making Jacob wealthier.

As the capstone, Jesus changed the name of Jacob to Israel. Isra-el means "fight with-" or "persists with God". Yes, I did say Jesus. Most theologians believe that when Jacob wrestled with God, it was Jesus who was actually there wrestling Jacob. Not surprising, when you consider that Jesus has been directly involved in His father's plans all along. We don't know why they were wrestling, but the result was a name that would fit the nation for millenia to come.

The point that I am trying to make in all of this is that God gave Jacob the gifts he needed to fulfil his destiny. This is something we will see repeated again and again throughout the bible in many different ways.

Now, like his father and grandfather, Jacob knew that he was to be blessed and become a nation, but he didn't know HOW God was going to accomplish this. Even though Jacob had a sneaky way of ensuring that he always got the long end of the stick, Jacob's gifts were, in the long run, beyond his control. It was purely providence that brought all of these factors together. God always gives us what we need to accomplish the task He has set before us. He gave Noah the skill to build the ark, He gave Sarah her fertility, (as well as Rachel and Rebekah) It also demonstrates that God's will isn't going to be thwarted. Not by Isaac favoring Esau, not by Esau's rage toward Isaac, and not by Laban's cheating ways.

This week's challenge is the same for Christians and nonchristians. Understand that God is in charge. His plans will come to fruition despite all opposition, and often because of it. One can either accept it, go along with it and be blessed by it, or one can fight it and in doing so, forfeit any chance at receiving a blessing but help it along anyway, whether you want to or not.

And so, in the life of Jacob, we see the providencial nature of God revealed. And in the very near future, God will manifest Himself in Jacob's life in other ways. But that's another sermon.

Today's reading: Genesis 25: 21-34
21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.
23 The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger."
24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb.
25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau.
26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents.
28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.
30 He said to Jacob, "Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I'm famished!" (That is why he was also called Edom.)
31 Jacob replied, "First sell me your birthright."
32 "Look, I am about to die," Esau said. "What good is the birthright to me?"
33 But Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.