7/30/17: Hope Deferred, Genesis 29:15-30
Last in the series,
Failure, Family and Faith:
A Walk With our Spiritual Ancestors
First Lesson: Romans 8:26-39
Second Lesson: Genesis 29:15-30
Rev. Scott Dickison
If you’re finding yourself a bit confused right now, as if you wandered into a movie theatre half-way through the show, fear not, because that’s exactly what we’ve done—minus the movie theater. We’re picking up the story of this family drama that we claim as our own about halfway in.
Last week we met Jacob on the road to Haran where he was sent in exile to meet up with his mother’s family after swindling his brother out of his birthright and blessing. God meets him on the road at a certain place and gives Jacob a promise that would become the standard for divine promises from that day forward, assuring him that:
God would be with Jacob.
God would protect Jacob.
And God would bring Jacob home.
In the verses in between last week’s reading and today’s, we’re told how when he was on the outskirts of the city, he came upon a well with a large stone covering it where people would water their sheep. They would convene at the well and then all the men would gather around to move what must have a been a stone of considerable size. Jacob is standing there at the well, still closed by the stone, when he’s introduced to Rachel, his uncle Laban’s second daughter, who is shepherding her father’s sheep. And we have the closest thing described in Scripture to love at first sight. Jacob sees Rachel and in a feat of passion goes over and rolls away this massive stone by himself. Then he takes the sheep of his uncle and waters them at the well, and then we’re told he walks up to Rachel and kisses her and weeps aloud.
It’s probably at this point that we need to talk about what kind of story we’re reading here.
Yes, this is Scripture.
Yes, it’s the story of our spiritual ancestors.
But it’s also a melodrama.
It’s a story that runs the gamut of human emotions and experiences: betrayal, loss, blessing, curses, infertility, jealousy and ultimately reconciliation, often in sensational ways.
At times it’s even  to be funny—somewhere along the way we were told that Scripture’s not allowed to be funny but I’m not sure why we would think that. Isn’t laughter the closest thing to tears? Some laughter, at least. When we look at the world: creation, the scope of human life, the mystery, the absurdity of it all—surely God must have a sense of humor. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be interested in a God who didn’t have a sense of humor. Faith goes down easier with some laughter.
This is a melodrama, we have here. And not only that, it’s Scripture’s first love story.
This is the first story of romantic love we find in the Bible, and really one of it’s only romantic stories. And at times it’s a kind of silly love story. But then again, aren’t all love stories a little silly? Jacob is head-over-heels for Rachel. He rolls away a stone large enough for a dozen men, then he rolls up to her and kisses her and weeps aloud. Suddenly this mama’s-boy trickster is revealed to be the strong, sensitive, type. Think Ryan Gosling in The Notebook. You can hear the sappy music playing in the background.
These two lovebirds go to see Laban, who’s heard of Jacob’s arrival, runs out to meet him—a sign of affection that seems suspicious given the deception that comes. Laban invites Jacob to work for him and asks him to name his salary. Jacob says he’ll work for him seven years if he can marry his daughter Rachel. Laban agrees, Jacob works the seven years, which we’re told, “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” It’s as if we’re reading the love note he wrote her.
Then of course comes the deception, with Laban switching out Leah for Rachel on the wedding day, no doubt taking advantage of Jacob’s indulgence in a typically hedonistic wedding celebration. Jacob confronts him and Laban claims this is how they do it in his country, the oldest daughter must be married first—some poetic justice being served to Jacob, the younger brother who had crossed the sibling birth order and defrauded his older brother of what was his. Perhaps admitting he’s been bested at his own game, Jacob agrees to work another seven years to marry his beloved.
And we should stop here to note that these are some ancient customs we’re witnessing here, with the women in this story functioning as pawns before the men in their lives, even being defined by their physical appearance—a reality to which the women in this congregation or any other congregation could attest is still alive today. Leah, we’re told has “lovely” eyes.” Rachel is “graceful and beautiful.” It may be some comfort to know that Leah and Rachel do find their voice later on in this story. They take their lives and their livelihood into their own hands, working behind the scenes to achieve their purposes, and it turns out, in doing so they achieve God’s purposes, too.
And when we think about what it is, exactly, that we’re to gain from this melodramatic romantic comedy of a Scriptural passage, this may be it: that God is working through all if this. This has been a theme throughout this series on Family, Failure and Faith; we’ve noted how God works through all the different facets of our loves: our mistakes, our embarrassments, our dead-ends—Here we see again how God works through deception, but also that God works through romantic love. God works through our labors, through our work, our careers. To put it briefly, God works through human life, in all its many forms; the highs and the lows. The characters we’re given aren’t perfect humans, but they are perfectly human. Laban is a crook, but he also prays to God. Jacob is not always an honorable as we would like him to be, but the truth is neither are most of us. God acknowledges the diversity of human life and blesses it, in a way, by continuing to work through it—and most often in hidden ways. Very rarely is God explicitly mentioned in this story after appearing to Jacob in his dream, and yet God is undeniably there, still moving, still acting, still unfolding the divine dream. The promises made to Jacob are still good, still intact, even if they are delayed.
And this is a part of this story that we might miss just reading it here like we have. It might actually be better if we wandered into a movie theater and saw it acted out on the screen. Then we might have a better sense of the passage of time.
Many years are covered in this story—at least 14 of them, in fact, just in the verses we’ve read today. We can imagine a young Jacob starting out on this journey—a strapping lad, say of about 20. Fair-skinned and doe-eyed and a full head of hair. Fast forward seven years later on his first wedding day, his skin a bit more tan from laboring out in the sun. Jaw-line more defined. Just the slightest of crows-feet appearing when he squints his eyes. Fast-forward another seven years when he finally married his beloved. He’s 34 now, still strong, but crows feet more defined, perhaps some hair thinning after having been a pastor for 5 years, I mean working in the fields those 14 years.
There’s a passage of time here. It would pass on more as the story continues—following these three, Jacob and Leah and Rachel to their old age and their deaths. And you could say that this whole “seven year” trope is kind of cute and not to be taken seriously, but I tend to think there’s something there we’re meant to pay attention to. God’s dream unfolds slowly. It unfolds at the speed of our lives. Yes, Jacob was promised a family and a home and future, but these things don’t happen all at once. Jacob and Rachel both wish to marry their beloved, and yet must wait. And Leah, thrust into someone else’s love story must wait for God to reveal where she fits in—and she would, eventually. In the end, Lead would be buried next to Jacob, not Rachel.
These things happen slowly, with many fits and stops. In fact, as these characters were living their lives, the movement of God within was probably about as discernible as the rotation of the earth underneath their feet. It may have been that it was only after they stopped and looked back on those years that they realized all that had happened. How things had changed in them, how they were different now, molded and shaped by a life that had been molded and shaped by God.
I thought about this over the weekend when I met with the family of Myrtle Tyson, one of our beloved church members of just about 70 years who passed away on Friday. We were there talking about her and her husband John, who you’ll remember died just a couple of years ago. And they were reminding me how they met. Myrtle grew up on a farm not too far from here, but came to the base in World War II to work. She was a real life Rosy the Riveter, they told me. After the war she moved to Macon and was staying at a boarding house, where she met John, who had moved to Macon after serving in the Pacific. They were married at First Baptist Church not long after, and lived the rest of their lives hopelessly devoted to each other.
And to say it like that makes their whole story seem so inevitable: Of course, there was a war and then she moved there and he moved here and they met and lived happily ever after. But we all know that’s not how life works. And their story isn’t unique in the way, all of our lives are like this. Looking back we can make some sense of it all; see clear paths, or threads tying things together. But as you’re living it, life seems completely up in the air. It’s only after the fact that we can say, Yes, God was moving there. The challenge, as people of faith, is to keep hope alive in the meantime.
There was hope throughout this whole dysfunctional family story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, but there must have been many days, even seasons, when it was hope deferred. These words come from Proverbs: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” it says. “But a longing fulfilled is the tree of life.”
This is the thread that’s woven throughout this story of family drama and deception, and really the larger biblical story. The thread of hope, but often of hope deferred; hope delayed; hope that’s forced to wait and wait so long as to wonder if what we’re waiting for will ever come. In some sense all hope is deferred; all hope has a sense of longing, a sense of waiting for what is not yet reality. But as I’ve heard it said, hope deferred is not hope extinguished. It’s hope with the pilot light on, waiting to catch fire.
This is the story we’re given in this family history we claim as our own: a story of family, with all its dysfunction but also it’s blessing; a story of failure—which is to say it’s a human story. And it's a story of faith persisting through all of it. The faith of the characters involved, of Abraham and Sarah, of Hagar and Ishmael, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and all of them and how they keep this light on for God. But just as important, it’s a story of God’s faith in them. Of God’s almost reckless insistence on being involving in their life, insisting that these people—these people with all their complexities—would be the ones chosen. The God who seems hell-bent, or perhaps heaven-bent on working despite and often through the mess they’ve made.
A God who, we see, makes good on the promise that would articulated so many years later by the Apostle Paul in the eighth chapter of Romans when he said, “I am convinced—or as you may have learned it—I am persuaded—that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, not things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Nothing will be able to separate us. Not time, not disappointment, not failure. Not anything we could do or not do. We're told this time and time again not only in word but in deed by a loving God who has much more faith in us than we ever have in ourselves. Who keeps hope alive even when we would not. Who promises us these things. Who asks nothing more than that we would keep that spark alive, that humble light, so that God might reveal warmth and light untold through it. We have a hope. It is at times deferred. It is at times delayed. But the promise of Scripture is that we will one day have a longing fulfilled, which is the tree of life. Amen.
 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, 207-208
 Terence E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis, New Interpreter’s series. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation series
 Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss, ed. Nadine Pence Frantz and Mary T. Stimming