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 her 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. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 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.
Today, we continue a series on “Foundations of our Faith” as we look at life-changing stories from the book of Genesis. Genesis means “Beginning,” and it tells us about the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God. Among others, Genesis tells us about the patriarchs and the matriarchs—chiefly Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who were really considered sort of a “first family” in Jewish religious understanding.
Last week, Jacob was on the run for his life, after hustling his own brother and deceiving his own father. Out in the middle of nowhere, Jacob had a dream about the presence of God, and we realized that, like Jacob, we are called to discern the presence of God in all the places and circumstances of our lives.
Today, his story continues, and what a story it is! The events of today’s text are, to say the least, “slightly irregular,” yet even through such bizarre circumstances, their story is also our story. May we pray.
Have you looked at the scripture passage for today? Did you listen and pay attention when it was being read a few moments ago and think, “Hmmmm, this is a weird one.” Every commentary and article I went to this week said basically the same thing – “This text presents certain challenges for the preacher.” Really?!? No kidding!! This text is a story of kissing cousins, lies, deceit, hustling, and polygamy; it’s the stuff that would make for several great seasons of afternoon soap operas – I love the Bible; you can’t make this stuff up!
Often, we read the Biblical text and translate it into our own time and context without any filters. Making arrangements to marry your first cousin probably only makes sense if you’re from certain counties in Arkansas. Dear sweet Uncle Laban is a master at deceit, lying, and swindling, but his is probably not the example I will hold up to emulate in a sermon. And how Jacob spent his wedding night with the wrong girl and didn’t realize it until morning is beyond me. That’s the worst hangover I’ve ever heard of!
This family has enough drama and conflict to last through decades of family reunions. Here’s some good news – no matter how dysfunctional you think your family is, you still don’t have anything on these people! They are liars, deceivers, swindlers, polygamists, drunkards, and hustlers – and if that’s not bad enough, these are the people God chooses to hang out with. These are the people God chooses to bless. These are the people through whom God chooses to work.
Jacob has run away from home because his older brother, Esau, was trying to kill him for deceiving their father and stealing the blessing of Esau’s inheritance. Jacob traveled to Haran, where his uncle Laban lived, with the explicit instructions from his parents to find a wife among his uncle’s daughters. He met Laban’s daughter, Rachel, and it was pretty much love at first sight. Jacob started working on Uncle Laban’s sheep farm and they struck an interesting deal – Jacob would work for 7 years in exchange for Rachel in marriage. Jacob didn’t have the financial means to pay the customary bride price of those days, so this was a good arrangement.
Rachel was one of two daughters. She was the younger, and she had an older sister named Leah. Rachel is described as lovely and graceful. We don’t hear much about Leah, other than something about her eyes – depending on your translation, they might be described as beautiful or weak. The word in Hebrew here is a little uncertain and vague, so it’s a little bit of a mystery about how she’s being described.
I take it to mean something like back in the days when I was being set up on blind dates, and when you’d ask what the person was like, the person trying to set you up would say, “Oh, she has a nice personality” or “He has a great personality” or “He’s very – interesting” or “She’s very – unique.”
We know that Jacob found Rachel far more desirable than Leah; and he gladly worked those seven years for her hand. After seven years, the big day came. They clearly partied hard all night. Jacob went back to his tent, and that slick uncle Laban sent oldest daughter Leah into the tent. In that time, the moment a woman entered a man’s tent, she was considered his wife. I can only guess that it was pitch dark that night and there was absolutely no talking involved, because Jacob doesn’t realize what has happened until the next morning.
The text says, “When morning came, behold! It was Leah!” (Genesis 29:25). Substitute your favorite expletive for the word “behold” if you want to get the full effect of the Hebrew text. He goes to the bride’s father and says, “Why have you deceived me?” Deception, as we’ve discovered, is something of a family problem.
Dear sweet Uncle Laban played innocent. “Oh, didn’t I tell you? In these parts, we never marry off the younger until the older is taken care of. Tell you what, finish your week-long sentence—err, honeymoon with Leah, work for me another 7 years, and then you can have Rachel.” So he did, but the text goes on to say that Jacob always loved younger sister Rachel more than older sister Leah. I’ve always wondered how that made Leah feel, but unfortunately, the text just doesn’t go there. I’ve always wondered if Leah was made to feel less-than-real in her attractive sister’s shadow.
When I do a wedding, I have noticed that every bride and every groom always do the same thing, whether they realize it or not. After the bride walks down the aisle and stands next to the groom, they always sneak a look into each other’s eyes. Guests at the wedding who catch this quick moment are thinking, “Oh, how sweet,” but that’s not what’s going on. They are really just checking to make sure it’s the right person.
You see, everyone thinks they’re marrying Rachel. They don’t realize they’re getting Leah as well. The reality is that every person you love is both Rachel and Leah. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person. We would rather put people into neat categories – good or bad, attractive or ugly, naughty or nice, friend or foe, someone worthy of my love or someone deserving of my hatred – but to put it plain and simple: each of us, and everyone else, has a little of each all mixed up inside.
Rumor has it I was not the easiest kid to raise. Mom said it was a good thing God made me so cute, because otherwise she would have killed me. When I started kindergarten, she was dreading going to the first parent-teacher conference. She came home from that conference and sat me down to tell me what Ms. Sarazin had said. She said, “Your teacher told me what you’re like in class. She said you’re the best student in the class, you’re well-behaved, you’re pleasant, you’re polite, and you’re very helpful. So what I want to know is how come you act so differently at school than you do at home?” I said, “Because, if I acted like that at school, no one would like me!”
Most of us have gotten really good at projecting a preferred image of ourselves. There’s the side we want people to see, the side we want people to like. It’s the side you show when you go on a job interview, when you’re dating someone, when you’re meeting people for the first time, when you go to a cocktail party. There’s that side of us we want people to see and know and like.
Craig Barnes says this preferred side is the side people fall in love with, and the one everyone thinks they are marrying. Oh, they notice those little flaws in the other person, but at first they are blind to the power of those flaws. In fact, they’re not even flaws, they’re just precious, cute, adorable little quirks that make the person more colorful. “Well, he’s a little sloppy, but I need to learn how to relax.” “Well, she seems awfully dependent on her father, but I’m sure that will all change after the wedding.”
At every wedding, I do wonder about the moment that will come sometime later. When habits that are now adorable have become annoying. After some weeks, or months, or years have passed and they realize that the person to whom they are now married is not the person they thought they married.
Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but he had to also take Leah if he wanted Rachel. He loved one more than the other. He was interested in one but not the other. Rachel was the one he loved, the one he was sure would be a blessing in his life. But he couldn’t have Rachel without also taking Leah. They’re a package deal.
Our text is a story about weddings, but if you focus on just the weddings, you’ll miss the point. The text uses the vehicle of weddings to clue us in on a larger discussion about love. It’s about the love God has for us and the love we are called to have for each other.
When someone is attractive, when we only see their good side, it’s easy to love them. It just comes natural. When people are lovely and loveable, it’s easy to love. But when people act ugly and unloveable, that’s a lot harder. Once you realize you’re not involved with some preferred image but with a real human being with flaws and hurts and scars and baggage and bad days, you realize how difficult it can be to love some people.
Yet for Christians, that’s exactly what we’re called to do. We are called to love others, even those who are unlovable, because God loves us, even when we are unlovable. God loves us with the full knowledge that we have both a good side and a bad side, and your flaws, your warts, your dark side are never so bad to keep God from loving you. As God loves us, we should love others.
In every wedding I do, I tell couples to love each other as God loves us. I remind them that God’s love for us is unchanged even when our behavior is displeasing to God. Likewise, as Christians, we are called to love people even if we find them difficult to love, disagreeable, or just plain annoying. It’s hard to love like that. It’s hard to love someone who has hurt you or wronged you; it’s hard to love someone when you find out they’re not who you thought they were.
Jacob was prepared to love Rachel – that part came easily enough. But, surprise! God also wanted him to love Leah, and that wasn’t so easy. And then, surprise again! We are called to love even when it’s not so easy. Loving when it’s not easy is the best witness for and reflection of God’s love we can make, because God loves us even when it’s not easy for God to love us. Sending your Son is the easy thing to do. That alone is proof that God loves us even when we’re not that easy to love. “God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him” (Romans 5:8, The Message). As God has loved us well, we are called to love others well.
When I think about loving others well, I think about my grandparents. Shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Many of you know what a cruel disease this is – causing someone to become a person they have never been before, turning a loved one into a stranger. Papa had spent most of his life married to one person, and over the course of just a few years, she became a different person. Yet, Papa continued to love her well. She was hardly the person he had married, yet he continued to love her – nurturing her, caring for her, sitting next to her on the couch for hours, lightly touching the back of her hands, looking into her sometimes vacant eyes and simply saying, “I love you.” The harder it became to love her, the more deeply he loved her, knowing it was then when she needed his love the most.
Friends, God’s love for you is even deeper than that. God doesn’t love just the part of you that is good, desirable, attractive, or lovable. God loves all of you. God’s love is radical and unconditional. God doesn’t say, “I will love you in spite of your flaws.” No, God says, “I love ALL of you, including your flaws.”
Likewise, we are called to love with the love of God, even when it’s not easy.
God, we thank you for loving us no matter what. We thank you for loving us even when we are difficult to love, and even when we don’t give you any good reason to love us. As you have loved us, help us to love others, including those who are difficult to love, in the name of your Son, Jesus, who came to show your love to all. Amen.