Sunday, July 12, 2020
Our three-year-old daughter Grace wants to be a princess when she grows up. She is insistent, and when we say, “You can’t go to school to be a princess, what else do you want to be?” she says, “Fine, I’ll be a mermaid.” We have tried to tell her that in order to be a princess, she would have to marry into royalty, and we don’t know any royal families so the chances are pretty slim, but she is determined! She says, “It’s just not fair that I can’t be a princess!” It’s a reminder to us that you really can’t control where or when you’re born: most of us are just ordinary people, and truly, most of us are lucky to have been born in the United States or into a family where we could live here on Long Island today, but we just plain won’t be royalty.
In our exploration of our faith ancestors in the book of Genesis, we turn from Abraham and Isaac to Jacob and Esau, that famous sibling rivalry. Their story is a reminder that there’s a lot you can’t control about where and when you’re born. And your birth order does impact how you hear this story. I am the oldest in my family, and I have always had sympathy for Esau. It’s hard being the oldest child, any firstborn can tell you that. If you want to remember Jacob and Esau’s full story, you’ll have to read from Genesis 25 to 36. Just as a reminder, after Esau foolishly gives Jacob his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, in Genesis 27, Jacob (with help from his mom Rebekah) tricks Isaac into giving him the blessing instead of Esau. And so from the oldest child’s perspective, it doesn’t seem fair. Esau doesn’t get what he deserves. But if you are the youngest or a middle child, you may want to stick up for Jacob: what did Esau do to deserve Isaac’s blessing and birthright, anyway? You can’t control if you’re born first or second or last in a family, after all. It is interesting the cultural traditions that are passed down from generation to generation, particularly the idea that the firstborn inherits everything. My great-grandfather emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s because he wasn’t the first-born and therefore wouldn’t inherit any land for farming. It’s the first-born, still often first-born males, who inherit the throne in monarchies throughout the world. So if you were Jacob, or Rebekah, without rights to inherit land or wealth or much of anything as a woman or as a later-born child, wouldn’t you do what you could to change your fortunes?
This is not the only instance in which God intervenes to turn cultural expectations and customs upside down for the sake of his larger purposes. God favors Abel, the second-born, over Cain. Isaac is younger than Ishmael, but he inherits the promise from his father Abraham. Joseph, who we’ll look at in more detail in a few weeks, is the 11th child of Jacob, but his favorite. David is the youngest of Jesse’s sons but is the one God chooses to be King of Israel. And even in the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the story of the younger prodigal son who is unconditionally loved by his father despite all of his faults and sins, which causes the older son to be resentful. God working through unexpected people and forgoing social convention happens throughout scripture, and this is partly what Jesus means when he says “the last will be first and the first will be last” in some form at least five times throughout the gospels. In fact, throughout the scriptures, God gives people what they don’t deserve: first born, last born, women, foreigners, the poor, the rich and everyone in between.
I have mentioned this before as we continue to grapple with the pandemic, that one of the most challenging realities of this time is coming to terms with all of the things we cannot control about our situation right now. It is unsettling to think about being out of control, and the world seeming to be out of control. In this story from Genesis, we can see Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, AND Esau wrestling with God and feeling out of control – Isaac can’t retract his blessing and give it to Esau. Jacob couldn’t have been born first, even though he tried in grabbing Esau’s heel. Rebekah can’t control giving birth to twins who more often than not are at war with one another. Nonetheless, God blesses both Jacob and Esau. The story of the people of Israel continues through Jacob, who inherits Isaac’s birthright and blessing. But if you read Esau’s story, he becomes the father of the nation of Edom. He marries Ishmael’s daughter and lives a prosperous life. Eventually, he is able to reconcile with his brother Jacob in a powerful story of forgiveness. Life doesn’t turn out the way Esau or Jacob had expected if they had been in total control, but God blesses them and their families anyway.
Life doesn’t turn out the way we expect or want all of the time either – we have certainly learned this lesson this year. Yet, God continues to bless us and give us more than we deserve. Paul’s letter to the Romans continues to remind us that if we only lived by the rules of the world, we would be condemned by our sin. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you,” Paul says. Because God’s spirit lives in us, we all have received more than we deserve, whether we were born right here in Syosset or in China, whether we were the firstborn or the last, male or female, rich or poor, the list can go on. God’s love, forgiveness, and grace extends beyond our expectations and categories of worth and unworthiness, deserve and undeserved. Thanks be to God! Amen.