12th July 2020: TRINITY FIVE 

 

Revised Common Lectionary:  

Genesis 25:19-34  (NIVUK)

 

19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

 

21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. 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 enquire 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 elder 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 skilful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home 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, which means ‘Red’)

 

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.

 

Thoughts for the Day:

 

They were always known as ‘the Twins’; Identical in every way they spent their whole lives in the house where they were born, identically dressed, identical in thought and speech, they seemed to live, and move, as one. Even those who’d grown up with them could not tell them apart.

 

One day one of them slipped and broke her arm, which had to be set in plaster. ‘Is it much of a nuisance?’ I asked. ‘Only when I turns over in bed, I nearly knocks ‘er out!’ came the reply.

 

I’ve known twins who finished each other’s sentences; twins who instinctively knew when their other half was in trouble or danger even though separated by long distances.  Twins have always seemed – different – in society; always different, at times mystical, or even to be feared.

 

So it is interesting that the book of Genesis in the OT appears to have a preoccupation with twins. Cain and Abel aren’t implicitly described as twins but the Hebrew text describing their birth, and rabbinic tradition, suggests they were.

 

Ephraim and Manasseh, twin sons of Joseph, are adopted by their grandfather Jacob as his own. On his death bed he plays a trick on them and on Joseph his son by blessing the younger rather than the elder despite Joseph’s objections.

 

Perez and Zerah are twins born of the scandalous relationship between Judah and his daughter in law Tamar (Genesis 38).  Zerah, emerging first, finds his twin suddenly pulls him back and pushes past, forcing his way out.

 

In each of these stories the younger one supplants the elder, second becomes first; Interestingly in the genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament it is Perez, the younger, who is remembered as the ancestor of Jesus, not Zerah.

 

This overturning of the expected order of things  is another recurring theme in Genesis, one we meet in our reading this morning, the story of Jacob and Esau – though we ought to say Esau and Jacob, for whilst Esau is the elder twin once again the younger has supplanted the elder in the story and in the way they are remembered. We might wonder why just God exhibits this preference for overturning the accepted social order, for elevating the cause of the younger at the expense of the rights of the elder. As the overarching biblical narrative emerges it will become a defining characteristic of this God, this preference for the underdog, this bias to the poor.

 

As is so often the case with these bible stories the narrative passes over significant details with a lightness of touch and an economy of words that makes it easy to miss what they imply.

 

Isaac, son of Abraham, remains fatherless at 40. His wife, Rebekah, remains childless. Once again it seems the promises of God to Abraham that he will be father of many nations hangs in the balance.

 

Isaac prays to the Lord, Rebekah falls pregnant. It is not an easy pregnancy; she carries twins who ‘fight in the womb.’ In an age when childbirth was far more precarious than today this must have been alarming and a cause for concern; Rebekah fears for her  life.

 

An important piece of information easily overlooked is the time between Isaac’s prayer for a child and God’s fulfilment of his request; he’s 40 when he prays for a child, but he is 60  when the boys are born;  20 years of constant prayer;  Two decades of anxiety for Rebekah, wondering if their prayers would be answered and as time went on who knows, perhaps hoping they might not?

 

Now they have been, will they cost her her life? Rebekah inquires of God why this is happening to her, and God answers 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 elder will serve the younger.’

 

At one level it’s reassuring for Rebekah, her life and those of her unborn children are not in danger. Yet at another level God’s reassurance comes with a promise that will darken this family for generations to come.

 

When they are born these twins are not identical. The first-born has a ruddy complexion and abundant auburn hair, so he is named ‘Esau’ which means ‘Red.’  The second is born already grasping the heel of his brother, so he is named ‘Jacob’ which means ‘Heel’, ‘Grasper’, perhaps even ‘Trickster’.

 

He will certainly live up to his name.

 

As the story of Jacob and Esau unfolds we shall see how Rebekah never forgot the promise God made to her; indeed she works to bring them to fruition, her younger son Jacob a willing conspirator.

 

Being the eldest son means the future of the family line belongs to Esau. His birthright, given through his father’s blessing, will belong to him alone; it will be the means by which he inherits Isaac’s flocks, herds and wealth and affirm his legitimacy, inheritor of family line and name – these are his by right.

 

But things will not work out as Esau and his father Isaac expect.

 

Of course, we, the reader, already know the purposes of God revealed to Rebekah. Esau does not.

 

Knowing they are twins, understanding the intimacy often enjoyed by such siblings, makes the story all the more poignant. It’s been said that in Genesis Jacob and Esau are the first fully formed characters in the story. Abraham is distant, enigmatic. Isaac rather wooden, lacking charisma. That cannot be said of these twins who’ve know one another every day of their lives.

 

Twins they may be yet these two are very different. Like Ishmael before him Esau grows into a skilful hunter, the apple of his father, Isaac’s eye. Jacob on the other hand prefers to stay at home, watched over by his adoring mother.

 

We don’t know how old the twins are when the fatal turn of events show how God’s words are to be fulfilled. Old enough for Esau to be out hunting and Jacob to be allowed to cook. In comes Esau, impetuous, impulsive. He says he’s famished, demanding some of the lentil stew Jacob has cooking.  Jacob sees an opportunity; he’ll feed his brother, but there is a cost. Sell me your birthright.

 

It’s a remarkable request, unthinkable really, had to take seriously. Jacob is asking for nothing less than his brother’s renunciation of the right to inherit all that is rightfully his. Yet Esau agrees!

 

It’s sometimes said Jacob steals the birthright from Esau, but really, doesn’t Esau give it away all too easily? Perhaps he thinks Jacob is joking ? He doesn’t seem to value his birthright all that much if he’s willing to trade for a bowl of stew, but that is exctly what he does, and once satisfied, the transaction is forgotten by him; but not Jacob. Later we will learn the terrible consequences of Esau’s actions.

 

What’s all this about? At one level it is a tragedy that Shakespeare would have been proud to have written; at another it describes the origins of what would become the centuries old enmity between Israel and Edom as neighbours and ancient enemies. For it is from Esau the people called ‘Edomites’ were descended, and it was Jacob whose name was changed by God to Israel, meaning struggle, ‘for you have struggled with god and with men and have prevailed’, God will say.

 

Moreover, their broken relationship will become a byword in the Bible for division, as recorded by the prophet Malachi, remembered by Paul in Romans chapter 9, encapsulated in psalm 137, the psalm of the Babylonian exiles who ask, ‘what did the Edomites shout triumphantly when Jerusalem fell? tear it down, tear it down to its very foundations.’

 

These stories of Jacob and Esau reach us like light from distant stars, travelling though time across centuries to illuminate our present.  Do we then consider them not much more than distant memories of nations and peoples with little or nothing to do with us? Or might we enter their world to explore their triumphs and their tragedies, seeing in them glimpses of the struggles and unresolved conflicts we still live with?

12th July 2020

Trinity Five 

 

Book of Common

Prayer Readings

 

THE COLLECT   

GRANT, O Lord, we beseech thee, that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered by thy governance, that thy Church may joyfully serve thee in all godly quietness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

THE EPISTLE  

1 S.Peter 3.8  

(Book of Common Prayer)
BE ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.  For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.  For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.  And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?  But and if ye suffer for righteousness' sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts.

 

THE GOSPEL 

S.Luke 5.1  

(Book of Common Prayer)
IT came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake; but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets.  And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land: and he sat down, and taught the people out of the boat.  Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.  And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing; nevertheless, at thy word I will let down the net.  And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes; and their net brake.  And they beckoned unto their partners which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.  When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.  For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken; and so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon.  And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men.  And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

 

Thoughts for the Day:

Revd. Ian Paul, a member of the Archbishop’s Council and theological educator recently posted a question on his blog about Church after Covid-19; ‘Is this the end for Church of England growth strategies?’

 

It’s hard to think of any aspect of life that is not affected by the pandemic. Many are now asking similar questions to Ian Paul, what will Church look like from now on, will the current shape of the Church of England based on the parish system be able to continue?

 

We’ve been encouraged to focus on words like ‘Mission’ and ‘Outreach’ since the launch of the decade of Evangelism by Archbishop George Carey in the late eighties. Over the last thirty years a steady stream of strategies and programmes designed to revivify the life of the Church in numbers and influence, has emerged, none of which as yet appear to have provided the kind of revival hoped for.

 

Before Lockdown happened the soon to be Archbishop of York,  Bishop Stephen Cottrell published ‘Priesthood,’ a new book on ministry. He was understandably upbeat at the time about the future, writing,

 

What the Christian faith offers is a whole new way of inhabiting the world and a whole new way of relating to God and a whole new way of being human…We enter it not through our hard work or our imagined goodness, but by turning and embracing what God offers us in Christ.

 

As you read these words I wonder how they fit with your understanding of what it means to be Christian? Do they broadly support or challenge your own view? 

 

Our Prayer Book gospel for today from Luke tells how Jesus went about the business of calling the first disciples to follow him. Anyone of my generation might remember the Sunday School chorus we learned that tells the same story ‘I will make you fishers of men…’. My childhood image of the disciples, shaped by such things, was of these decent, hard-working fishermen who willingly dropped everything to follow Jesus.

 

Of course, what I had no idea of was the social and religious context in which these people lived. I didn’t know just how poor the poor really were in Jesus’ day; how over-taxed and under paid ordinary people like Simon Peter and his friends were. I didn’t know anything of the rigours of official religion then, the hierarchy of priests and other religious professionals, the influence of the Pharisaic movement with their insistence on observing the letter of Torah, the Law as they saw it.

 

So I didn’t appreciate as I am able to do now just how radical Jesus was in his approach to teaching people about God or his method in calling others to follow.

 

Jesus didn’t choose religious professionals, scholars, theologians or fellow rabbis. He looked for, and called, individuals who would respond to the call to a) follow ( discipleship) b) live this new way of being human c) (perhaps most important) tell others and call them into this new life.

 

If they thought fishing was hard work, which it undoubtably was in those far off days, the life of discipleship was hardly a picnic!

 

Bishop Cottrell seems to me to encapsulate this understanding with his talk of Christianity as a whole new way of inhabiting the world. If it sounds radical it may because Christianity has been a radical movement from the outset.  Might it be that however awful the consequences of Covid-19 continue to be – and there’s no escape from the reality of lives lost, education and employment disrupted and all else besides – opportunity may emerge from the challenges we undoubtably face?

 

I don’t believe the answer to Ian Paul’s question about growth strategies is ‘yes’. It may be over for strategies based on what we took for granted before Covid 19, but the call to follow Christ is as real and relevant now as it was at the lakeside in Galilee. To paraphrase a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams we may need to find out where God is already working, and go there – and if we are to have strategies, base them on the new reality we shall all have to live with.

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