Yesterday I preached at the Calvin College Chapel service as part of a series looking at biblical characters. My assignment was Jacob. The day before I heard a sermon on the first part of the Joseph cycle also in Genesis. So the descendants of Abraham and Isaac have been much on my mind of late. And here’s the thing: that family was a mess.
It started with Abraham, who kept lying about the identity of Sarah as his wife and who then thought it was a good idea to agree with Sarah that since God was never going to come through on his promise to give them a son together, Abraham should take charge and have a child with the handmaid Hagar instead. So Ishmael gets born but then gets set up for a fairly abusive childhood that leads to his and Hagar’s literal exile.
The son Abraham and Sarah did end up having together, Isaac (little baby “Giggles”) seemed a bit more stable, albeit a bit of a milquetoast kind of fellow. Once his twin sons Esau and Jacob were born, you get the feeling he never knew what to do with either one of them. Rugged, hairy Esau was a bit thick in the head, Jacob was clearly as slick an operator as his skin was smooth. Eventually it leads to Jacob’s taking it on the lam, having scammed Esau first out of his birthright for a bowl of soup and then pulling the wool quite literally down around his blind father’s eyes, telling one bold-faced lie after the next to receive the all-important familial blessing that rightly belonged only to Esau as firstborn. Jacob escapes to his Uncle Laban’s place and after having endured a few scams himself at the good uncle’s hands, it takes Jacob only twenty more years to hit the road again with Laban’s entire estate essentially in tow.
God, of course, straightens Jacob out finally at the River Jabbok in an all-night wrestling match. God straightens him out by making Jacob’s own walking a crooked affair from then on out. His heart and mind got straight at long last but his crooked walk on the outside stood as a lifelong reminder that he once had been just that crooked on the inside and if he is still alive at all and in God’s good favor, it was all a gift of sheer grace. Still, Jacob gets some degree of comeuppance when his shadier tendencies get passed along to his sons who were so cruel and deceptive that they let their envy of the favored young son Joseph justify another bold-faced lie about Joseph’s being eaten alive. Jacob aged about 25 years right then and there and spent untold years thereafter in a melancholy he was sure he would take with him to his grave.
Of course, it all ends happily, more or less. Joseph lands on his feet, saves Egypt and eventually saves also the whole messy, dysfunctional, blessed clan of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The whole story, though, is a reminder that God does not choose the world’s plastic saints (or their families) to get his work done. Probably there are no plastic saints to begin with. God works from the midst of our messy lives. He chooses messy people.
As Neal Plantinga notes, God is quite adept at hitting straight shots with crooked sticks, and Jacob is the Bible’s #1 showcase display window on that one. It is a theme that runs through Genesis: God upends social and religious expectations to work through the least likely, the weakling, the last born, the shady one. And really that theme continues Bible-long on through stuttering Moses, adulterous David, a whole cadre of odd-acting prophets and all the way down to a baby born to impoverished parents who use a goat’s feed trough for a cradle. That Savior in diapers will grow up to keep calling to this side disciples and later apostles who also fit few people’s definition of the world’s glamorous and successful.
It’s all surprising and yet also hopeful, at least if you are willing to admit that few families are ever free of various levels of hurt, dysfunction, and messes. God is up to something unexpected as often as not. Those with eyes to see recognize this. It took a long while but even crafty old Jacob figures it out. The last story we get of ancient Jacob before he dies is of his favorite boy Joseph bringing in his first two sons to be blessed by Jacob. Joseph knows that the elder, Manasseh, needed Jacob’s bony old right hand to confer the more powerful blessing and so placed the boy on Jacob’s right side with younger Ephraim by the old man’s left hand.
At the last second, though, Jacob crosses his hands, making an X out of his arms, and gave the younger the great blessing. Joseph tries to stop him–“The old man is losing it” Joseph no doubt thought–but Jacob will have none of it. Looking up over his criss-crossed arms, his dim eyes that now resembled two pale pieces of china look at Joseph. I like to imagine he winked, smiled a bit, and as much as said “Let it be. God has had to twist himself into a pretzel plenty of times with our clan but the grace somehow always got through to the right people. So let’s just go with this, shall we?”
And there it is: God’s crazy grace incarnated in a once tricky fellow who criss-crossed up the whole tradition as a sign that despite the mess that we each of us so often are, grace goes on. Somehow. In the end, it’s always grace. And as the old song says, it really will lead us home.