Its message is repeated 167 different ways to make sure we get it.
God’s will is the way to go.
God’s law, decrees, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, precepts, promise.
However it is expressed, it means the same thing.
The reading for today begins with that verse so familiar:
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
That pretty much takes care of the present and the future.
A lamp to help us see where we are stepping right now.
A light to show us the path where we are heading.
I want to highlight another verse, too.
It’s one that looks back and celebrates the past.
“Your decrees are my heritage forever,
they are the joy of my heart.” (vs. 111)
God’s will is the good heritage to which we hold,
the path on which we walk, and, in short, the way to go.
Heritage is of deep significance to the people of God.
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the present moment,
whether it is filled with anxiety or joy,
that we overlook our connection, our family’s bloodline,
shared with all who subscribe to the Covenants Old and New.
Just look to the first book of the Bible,
and see how that old and almost quirky story of those twins
contributes to our understanding of the lamp, the light, the heritage of God’s word.
As the story begins,
we could let the light be that of the stars that shone over the house
Isaac shared with his wife Rebekah.
After twenty years of marriage, they had no children.
And this was troubling, because God had made a promise to Isaac’s father, Abram,
that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. (Gen. 15:5)
This night as Isaac looks into the shining canopy overhead,
he is moved to pray his doubts and fears, perhaps his confusion, or,
as a man who knew God’s ways and honored God’s will,
it is more likely he simply prayed a reminder to God that thus far Rebekah was barren.
Isaac prayed. The Lord answered. Rebekah conceived.
Well, that was easy.
But the pregnancy was not as easy as answered prayer.
One morning as the sun shone brightly overhead,
Rebekah felt a violent kick inside her.
Not those cute little thumps that bring invitations like:
“There it is! Put your hand here. Feel it? It’s the baby! It’s moving.”
No, this thump hurt.
So much Rebekah involuntarily cried, “Oooh!”
It happened again and again.
As the night brought rest to Isaac,
Rebekah stood in the doorway of their house
and watched clouds drift over the face of the bright moon.
She was having trouble sleeping
because the life inside her had no sense of night and day, sunshine or moonlight,
and Rebekah’s womb was filled with jostling and struggling and pushing.
She kept asking herself, “Why is this happening to me? What’s wrong?”
One day, she made her way to the sanctuary of the Lord.
In the light of an oil lamp, she stood (as best she could),
and she prayed the same question she had been asking herself.
“What is happening inside me?”
As God had answered Isaac, so now God answers Rebekah.
How the answer came, we do not know.
We do know its literary form.
It is called a poetic oracle.
A message from God that has more to do with theology than obstetrics.
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
There is no more than that.
No explanation. No justification. No more than that announcement.
She had sought the light of understanding,
but had received a puzzling oracle that cast a dark shadow
on what she and Isaac had considered a wonderful gift of the grace-filled God.
Here are twins conceived and called,
but already in contention and conflict even before their birth.
The delivery was as difficult as the pregnancy,
with the second child born grasping the heel of the first,
as if trying to pull his brother back so he himself could be first born.
Reading this in its original Hebrew,
the birth announcement is made up of wordplay, puns, even ridicule.
The one named Esau is described as red and hairy,
as if scripted to be the rough, sunburned outdoors man and hunter,
but the narrator knows full well the word red is a play on the word Edom
and the word for hair is a play on the name of the region
where the Edomites would live.
The word for hairy is “se-ar” and the place name is “se-ir”; get it?
And the red complexion is linked later in the story to that blood-red stew,
and the word for Jacob is just like the word for “heel”
and it has to do with kicking his way out, and all of this is very clever in the Hebrew,
a way for Jacob’s nation to look back and make fun of their rivals, the Edomites,
those descendants of Esau, the one born first,
and the one who was to be first in line for every blessing and twice the inheritance,
and the one who might have been the founder of a lasting nation
with more descendants than the stars in the night sky.
But Esau and Edom were to come in second because of two things:
the inscrutable power of God whose will would be done as the oracle had said it,
and the self-serving cleverness of a conniving Jacob who knew what he wanted,
and made a way to get it.
But we’re getting a little ahead of the story, aren’t we?
First, these infant boys must grow up.
And they do.
Esau becomes a skilled hunter, a man of the open country.
No parent should play favorites, but Isaac loved Esau and his rough ways,
and the wild game that found its way to the cooking fire and the dinner table.
Jacob, on the other hand, became a quiet man who liked the security of the tent.
We can imagine him a more smooth-faced, gentle man,
interested far more in cooking game than hunting it.
He was Rebekah’s favorite.
I wonder if she, like Jesus’ mother Mary, pondered over things in her heart,
considering especially the meaning of that oracle
as her boys grew up, and grew more and more apart.
“The one shall be stronger than the other.”
Esau, she thought to herself.
But, “the elder shall serve the younger.”
Not likely, the way things are going, she thought.
But one day, the way things were going changed ... for good.
That was the day Jacob’s stew was worth more to Esau than his own birthright.
The stage is nearly empty of details.
All we have is a fire, a pot, boiling stew, and the cook stirring the pottage.
And we have an exhausted hunter coming in from the field,
smelling the rich aroma of the stew,
His stomach is empty and the cooking pot is full.
“I’m starving!” he announces as he approaches,
and he is none too polite as he demands a bowl full of Jacob’s stew.
(The story teller mentions again the color red, as if taunting!)
Jacob senses that this may be his chance.
How long he has waited for this day, whether he has plotted it,
whether he just suddenly sees (or seizes) the opportunity,
we don’t know.
But almost awkwardly Jacob springs his own demand.
“You want my stew? I want your birthright.
How hungry are you?”
Callously, Esau exclaims, “Look, I’m about to die of hunger.
What do I need a birthright for? It’s yours.”
Jacob is clever enough to seal the deal officially and legally.
If this had been a light moment, between a casual swaggering older brother
and his younger sibling with soup to share,
it is a darker moment now, with the oracle becoming clear.
The older is giving up the things of the firstborn:
double inheritance, privilege, security, prosperity, land.
The storyteller knows that, from this point on,
the Edomites are destined for pottage, little more. [Brueggemann, Interpretation, Genesis]
The essence of Esau’s story from now on is in the verbs:
Esau ate, drank, got up, and left.
And despised his birthright.
The storyteller knows that, from this point on,
through the younger brother Jacob, who puts more stock in the future,
Israel will become the inheritor of all the good gifts of the father,
the nation of God’s grace and will.
If we take this story to be part of the heritage we enjoy as God’s grace,
let us let God’s light shine on two lessons.
A lamp to our feet in this present moment:
Consider how many of us give ourselves up for any old stew!
Esau traded his birthright for pottage.
Lest we consider ourselves any brighter or more patient or more thoughtful than Esau,
it would be good for us to admit that the things of the present moment,
whatever our hungers or wants, can lead us to compromise our faith in God’s promises.
The apostle Paul could make us a long list of the things
that human nature devises to draw us away from the life of the spirit.
For some brothers and sisters, various addictions satisfy deep hungers,
and build barriers against the grace and freedom found in God’s light.
Drugs, of course, including alcohol.
But also sex and food and work and sometimes even religion.
Our emptiness finds relief in wrong-headed decisions that work for the moment,
but cloud the future and deny God’s narrow way to life abundant.
I remember many years ago a friend who enjoyed a so-called recreational drug.
He said lighting up a joint or two after coming home from a stressful day at the office
was a harmless pleasure cheaper than therapy,
and safer than the physical exercise of jogging through his downtown neighborhood.
His rather long-winded justification for his habit,
didn’t include any reference to how his drug of choice
found its way to his car every Saturday afternoon.
He didn’t have a clue that his modest participation in stress-reduction
had any link to his city’s high crime rate
or to the deaths of so many young black men in the blighted streets and alleys
in the shadows of high rise, high rent office and apartment buildings downtown.
So easily we sell our heritage by selling out our faith for momentary pleasures.
A small theft from the office that no one will notice…
keeping still while someone is being debased, verbally abused, or bullied…
(just as I typed that line, a dark memory occurred to me).
I have a confession to make: I once walked into the shop of a church member
who had promised a nice discount on some equipment we wanted for youth work.
As I walked into the front door, I saw him physically strike an employee.
They were both embarrassed that I witnessed it, and after the victim had left hurriedly,
his boss, rationalized the violent act as if he had had to discipline a misbehaving child.
This was not something they taught us in seminary.
This was decades ago, when I was new to ministry, so shocked at seeing that angry outburst,
and clueless about what I should have done about it.
I should have done something; because the image has stayed with me all these years.
I would hope that I’ve grown a spine,
with the lamp having shined on my path more brightly since then,
and my heritage of conscience and compassion so much more clear.
Living for the moment, most of us do not give much thought to the decisions we make.
But if saying yes to any temptation
or turning away from opportunities to do the right thing
means saying no to the God who has ordained such grace and love for us,
even in our struggles, especially in our struggles,
then we are no better, no wiser, than Esau.
We trade our spiritual birthright of life in the Spirit
But here is the good news for us.
Good news that shines a light on our path.
As Paul writes to the Romans,
“You, however, live not by your natural inclinations,
but by the Spirit of God who has made a home in you.”
There is the power to say yes to God,
and to respond by walking in the light of God’s love.
Here’s where the second learning comes in:
The scandalous oracle about the elder serving the younger,
that inversion that affirms that we are not fated to the way the world orders itself.
Conventional wisdom falls to the wisdom of God who keeps saying,
“The last shall be first, and the first last.”
The “younger” ones in the Bible keep finding themselves in the front of God’s line,
little children leading, but other little ones, too,
the widows, the orphans, the sojourners, publicans and sinners.
God tampers through Rebekah’s oracle and through the ministry of Jesus
to work God’s will “in the face of every human convention
and every definition of propriety.” [Brueggemann]
So much does God love the last in line, the littlest ones,
that God descended to their level, to the level not of the victors but of the victims.
God so loved the world that God became a victim of humanity’s cruelty.
God is born in human form in a humble stable.
Jesus begins his public life joining the ranks of sinners who were baptized by John.
In Jesus, God ministers
not as a temple leader surrounded by the learned and powerful and holy rabbis,
but as an itinerant teacher and healer,
surrounded by bumbling if well-meaning amateurs.
And God descends more deeply into our humanity
by moving among the sick and the sinner,
by touching the untouchable and loving the unlovable.
And God descends more deeply until Jesus,
betrayed and forsaken, is condemned as a criminal,
and dies on a cross.
And God descends to the lowest of human depths.
And then comes the great reversal where the last becomes first.
And Easter’s glorious message of victory and hope and promises fulfilled,
casts new light on every path, and makes for us a heritage of joy and salvation!
[These thoughts from Henri Nouwen, Letters to Marc about Jesus]
Here is our birthright.
Let us not despise it or lay it aside for trivial stews.
Let us honor it, live into its promise, and serve the Lord whose gift it is.
And that service means our descending to love the little ones,
offering to feed, heal, clothe, build, and comfort them
with no strings attached —
not taking away their birthright,
but announcing it as good news,
a lamp to their feet,
a light to their path,
a heritage of joy to celebrate.
In other words, God’s will is the way to go.
Thanks be to God!