Genesis 29: 15-28 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. Romans 8:26-39
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose. For those whom God foreknew, God also predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus, in order that Jesus might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom God predestined, God also called; and those whom God called, God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? God who did not withhold Jesus, the firstborn, but gave Jesus up for all of us, will God not also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor 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 in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jacob has been busy since we saw him last- He tricked his older brother into giving Jacob his birthright, and then tricked his blind father into giving him Esau's inheritance. As one might expect, his Dad and Brother were so angry with Jacob, that in order to keep himself safe, Jacob had to leave home. He went east to stay with his uncle Laban- his mother's brother. If there was a person on earth that was more manipulative than Jacob, it was Laban. As Jacob draws close to Laban's land, he comes upon a well, and there he meets the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. In fact, the text says he is literally knocked over by how beautiful she is- and is so moved, he begins to cry. The woman is Rachel, none other than the younger daughter of his Uncle Laban- and yes, technically Jacob's cousin-which was a great thing in Biblical times. And Jacob starts listing the pros- Not only is Rachel family, and enough to make you cry beautiful, she is rich, and for him, this is as good as it gets!
But this is not a one sided love by any means. Rachel is so taken with Jacob, that she runs home to tell her father she has met the man of her dreams, so by the time Jacob gets to Laban's house the old man runs out to meet and greet Jacob, excited to see the nephew who has stolen his daughter's heart. And over the next few hours, Jacob, with total transparency, tells his Uncle Laban everything that's happened… even how he swindled his brother out of his birthright for soup, and how he fooled his old Dad Isaac with the goatskin to get a blessing! No tricks- Jacob is starting this relationship out with total honesty. I have to say, this is a pretty brave act on Jacob's part. Very often when we meet someone new, we put on our best selves- we don't talk about the dark parts of ourselves- we would be worried if someone came up to us and said, "oh hi, yes, great to meet you, buy the way i lied and stole from my family- can i marry your daughter?"
But remember, Laban is crafty himself, so when he hears the whole story, he doesn't flinch. He just looks Jacob in the eye and says, (and this is straight from the text…)“Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he invites Jacob to stay in his house! And at the end of a month, goes to Jacob and says… "You're my family. So I know you must want something more than family connection from working here... what do you really want?" And Jacob is again, honest… “I want Rachel. I’ll work for you for the next 7 years if you give Rachel to me as my wife.” Rachel, as it turns out, is the younger daughter of Laban… her older sister's name was Leah. And while Rachel hit the jackpot as far as looks are concerned, Leah… um, not so much. She had an eye problem- soft eyes, or weak eyes…in fact our translations says "lovely" eyes, but we can take that to mean something literal about her eyes being a little funky, or because it's Hebrew, it could mean that Leah had no spark- no personality. In any case, Rachel is the one Jacob has fallen for... and wants. And so he tells Laban… “ And Laban says something about giving her (not mentioning Rachel by name) to you instead of to someone else, and the deal is done.
So at the end of 7 years... which feel like only a few days to Jacob, because he was so in love with Rachel... Jacob goes to collect. Laban agrees- and the wedding week is planned. (Weddings then were not just a few hours on a Saturday. There was feasting and dancing and drinking... all most likely to excess… and the celebration lasted a week or even longer) Instead of a bridal gown as you would see today, the bride wears many veils, even covering her face. Then, after the reading of the marriage contract, the groom would take his cloak and wrap her in it, (probably symbolizing protection) and then takes her into the marriage tent… and they would spend their first night together…(2)
Maybe it really was that dark… maybe she really was that veiled… but the morning after, Jacob, in a warm fuzzy afterglow type of fog, rolls over to kiss his new wife- only to find that he has married... the ugly sister! There, lying next to him is Leah... all curled up and smiling in her sleep!
Jacob is furious! He runs to Laban and says “What have you done? You know I wanted Rachel, I worked for Rachel, I’m in love with Rachel!”
Laban doesn't blink... and calmly he said, “It’s not done that way in our culture- that we give the younger before the firstborn.” Then Uncle Laban offers another deal to the younger, less sophisticated manipulator... “If you stay with Leah through the wedding week … I'll give you Rachel too- and of course I'll expect you to work for me another 7 years." Jacob did just as Laban knew he would- and by the end of the week, Jacob had 2 wives… And you can read this story from a lot of different angles… how poor Leah must have felt being the one who daddy had to trick Jacob into marrying…( I think at one time or another we have all felt like the ugly sister. ) Or how Rachel must have felt seeing her sister get the thing she wanted so badly… (I know we have all been there…)
But let's talk about Jacob. Jacob knew what he wanted... he finds out how to get it, follows the rules, for once in his life, despite his lying, cheating past, he cleans up his act for this one. Jacob does everything he is supposed to do, but life doesn't turn out the way he expects. Jacob can't understand- he can only feel shock, disappointment, and anger. Who hasn't experienced a "bad" surprise? When you don't get what you planned? You could be moving along with your life, or even your spiritual journey, and doing what you are supposed to do- praying, trusting God, getting involved in poverty and justice work, working to bring about shalom and peace... and everything is great- but one day you wake up and something has happened that you didn't expect that throws everything off course. Illness, an accident, a betrayal, loss, or any number of things that might cause you to question- what's going on here? This is not what I signed up for!
And during those times, you might start to question God. "How could you have let this happen? I've been doing what you called me to do- I've been faithful- done my very best- and now to be blindsided like this- are you here? Do you see me? Do you know I'm hurting?"
And it's in the middle of the questioning, and the doubting, and the grieving, that inevitably some well meaning Christian comes up to comfort you and says, "well, you know, all things work together for good to those who love the Lord..." Really? That's not making my situation any better right now! And for those of us who are tempted to use that quotation, please know that although it may be true- and yes I do believe with all my heart that all things work together for good, timing is everything. In the middle of a meltdown, or during sudden grief, or any other crisis is not the time to remind people of some bigger plan- it's the time to be God's presence to that person.
The scripture Pastor Jen read for us, though it contains the over-quoted, 'all things work together for good", also says, 'nothing can separate us from the love of God'... that though you might be feeling alone, or abandoned, or betrayed, the love of God is something that can't be undone. That's the biblical verse that we can live out for people going through tough times. (Notice I didn't say 'quote' The ministry of presence is much more powerful than any words we can offer people during suffering)
Now, that being said, in Jacob's case, in all our cases really, all things really do work together for good... for instance- Did you know that Jacob will have 12 sons? 12! Rachel gave birth to only 2 of them. Leah, the unwanted, birthed the other 10. Her 10 sons would become the first generation of the nation of Israel- the founders of our faith. Jacob could not have seen that coming- and would not see that reality for decades.
I think about the most painful situations in my life where something would happen that was so painful- I remember being in a great church in central Jersey- it was the church where we raised our children, where they were all baptized, where I learned about church leadership from the bottom up, where I grew in my Christian walk, and where I made some of the best friends of my life. I was set. Until a conflict in the church caused the ground to shake, and the church split- and I was one of the people who decided it was time to walk away. I can't tell you the level of pain I was in. These people had meant the world to me, but I knew I had to go. And they were so mad at me- and they were not shy bout telling me off whenever they saw me, or in emails, or behind my back. And I was so angry at God, I swore I would never get so involved in the next church- I wouldn't put myself at risk to be hurt like that again.
At the next church I was so scarred I would come to service late, and leave early, so I wouldn't have to meet anyone, or heaven forbid, get involved. But as I began to heal, I felt my resolve soften, and my spirit open- God was working things together for good. That church happened to be an American Baptist Church, and it's where I felt the call to ministry. In hindsight, had I stayed at the first church, a southern Baptist congregation, I would have never been ordained. I say this to you today, not so that you can feel better about where you are, or shrug off what may be going on in your own life, or give you a "it's going to be ok" pep talk. I say these things to remind us all that no matter what you are going through, no matter what we as a church go through, no matter what our country goes through, God is with us. That no matter what- nothing can separate us from the love of God- no tricks- no matter what- for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor 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 in Christ Jesus our Lord.