Genesis 28:10-22 and Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-43 July 23, 2017
Making crooked places straight and rough places smooth, is part of Christ’s work in our lives.
Last year in January the people of my adopted homeland, Taiwan, elected a new president and vice president. In November a new president and vice president were elected in my OTHER homeland, America. All of the candidates for president and vice president in both places were politicians. Many politicians choose their words carefully, because they want us to understand them in a way that leaves them free to do whatever they like, and not be called liars.
Some politicians seem to want to be misunderstood. But there are also people who want to misunderstand. It is to their advantage to get things wrong, because then they are free to do something OTHER THAN what they were told. Children and students are really skillful at purposeful misunderstanding. The guy we met him in our Old Testament reading today, was like that.
I Why Jacob was out there with his head on a rock
The character, Jacob is complicated. His parents were apparently unhappily married. (Once, thinking that he would save his own life, Jacob’s father told people that his wife, Jacob’s mother, was actually his sister, and gave her away to a local king. The king took her into his harem until he found out the truth, then he returned her. It’s hard to imagine there being any trust OR happiness after something like that.)
Jacob had a twin brother who was a few minutes older and a whole lot manlier than him. But Jacob was smarter, and cheated his brother, sometimes by himself and other times with the help of their mother. After one incident of being cheated, the brother threatened that after their father died, he would kill Jacob.
Among the things that the brother did that made their mother unhappy was to marry the wrong women (he had at least 3 wives). To avoid that happening with Jacob, he was sent far away to find a wife or wives (he came back with 4)in the home country of their mother. It is on this trip, running away from his brother and looking for women, that we met Jacob doing what most of us do every night, sleeping, and dreaming.
Because this is the Bible we’re reading, we’re going to accept that the report of Jacob’s dream is actually what he dreamed. He didn’t make it up, and it didn’t get written down incorrectly. In his dream he saw a stairway reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. And he heard the voice of the God of his grandfather and his father making promises to him. In those days there were not universities or degrees or big companies with good jobs to offer, so the promises he received were about land, descendants, blessings and protection.
II How Jacob misinterpreted the dream
If you were to have a dream in which God made promises to you, what would you be hoping to hear? If you’re in the middle of a graduate program right now, you might want to hear about successful completion of your courses, passing your thesis defense, and a good job afterwards. If you’re applying to get into a program, you might want to hear a promise of admission. If, like Jacob, you’re looking for someone to marry, you might have some hopes for that, too.
Because we don’t remember our dreams very often or very clearly, it’s possible that what we would understand upon awakening would be something like Jacob, who misinterpreted what we had heard.
Remember what God had promised to Jacob?: land, descendants, blessings and protection. But what did Jacob understand? Upon waking, he did NOT say, “what an awesome dream!” He did not say, “What a wonderful God!” He did not say, “What great promises!” No, he said, “What a place! God is here and I didn’t know it.” (He had some kind of belief in God, most people then believed in some sort of spiritual presence, most people today do, too.) For Jacob the presence of God had nothing to do with God or with Jacob, but with the place. And he believed that he had accidentally bedded down in God’s bedroom. Getting the meaning of the dream and the promises wrong he took actions and he made demands that were incorrect.
As you live in Taiwan, what languages are you using? How much of any local language (Mandarin or Taiwanese or one of the 18 others in use here) can you understand or speak? For that matter, coming to church here where we use English, a second or third language for most of us, how much or little can you understand, and how much do you misunderstand? Outside of home and here at church, I basically operate in Taiwanese, but a lot of people speak Mandarin to me. I often misunderstand. For example, when using Taiwanese to ask if something can be found on the right side or the left, and someone answers in Mandarin, I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT I’VE BEEN TOLD. So I still have to look on both sides.
In Jacob’s case, misunderstanding God’s promises led to interpreting what he had been told entirely to his own advantage. In verses 20-22, it sounds like he’s programming a computer. “IF 1) you will be with me and; 2) protect me on the journey I am making and; 3) give me food and, 4) clothing, and; 5) if I return safely to my father’s home: THEN A) you will be my God; B) this memorial stone which I have set up will be the place where you are worshipped, and; C) I will give you a tenth of everything you give me.”
So, God made promises to Jacob, not requiring that Jacob do anything in response, and Jacob “made a deal with God”, requiring God to provide protection, food, clothing, and safe return. And if he got it, THEN Jacob would believe in God, and give God a piece of land as big as a stone and ten percent whatever God would give him. Though God’s promises were good for Jacob, his own re-interpretation of those promises set things out EVEN BETTER for Jacob.
Before we judge Jacob too harshly, though, we need to reflect on ourselves. Like him, we, too, often misunderstand things, and we re-interpret them to our own advantage.
III: We don’t get it, either, but it’ll all get sorted out eventually
A lot of Jesus’ teaching was in the form of parables. Most often these were giving examples of what he was trying to teach. They were rarely stories with “hidden meanings”, in which one character or item “symbolized” something else. We read one of those stories today, and, thankfully, we also read Jesus’ explanation of it. Otherwise, being who we are, we might get it wrong.
The writer of Matthew gathered up stuff about Jesus, no matter where and in what situation it may have happened, and grouped things together by themes. In chapter 12 there are miracle stories. In chapter 13 there are two parables with explanations, and 5 parables without. The two with explanations are about agriculture and judgment. The others are about the value and power of the Kingdom of God.
The one WE read concerned a farmer who had servants and an enemy. It was about Jesus himself and his enemy. In the story, the farmer’s servants thought they might go into a polluted field and clean out the bad stuff. In the explanation, Jesus said that’s not the farm-workers’ job while things are growing, but that after the harvest, things would be sorted out.
When you ask a computer to do something, you need both good instructions and good information. There’s an expression, “Garbage in, Garbage out” which means that if either the instructions or the information is polluted, the result will not be satisfactory. We all learn a lot as we move through life. We learn good and bad instructions for how to live. We learn good and bad information about life. When we look at the mess of the lives we are in, it can be like the field in the parable, in which good wheat was growing mixed with bad weeds. We’re not unlike Jacob, who had good promises (information), but a selfish way of interpreting them (which served as his instructions.)
There were times in my own life when I was certain that to be a Christian meant that one did not drink beer, or smoke cigarettes, or use certain vulgar words in speaking to others. (It was wrong to steal, but was acceptable to cheat on your taxes so long as you didn’t cheat too much.) With those instructions, I sorted out who could and could not be my friends and associates. Unlike the farm-workers in the parable, I tore up good with bad, and destroyed relationships with people whom I now miss. The promise in Jesus’ parable is that it will eventually be sorted out. We should not be too eager to fix things ourselves.
In the 8 months that I’ve been part of the Tainan International Community Church we’ve used three different prayer response songs.For several months we sang a very traditional version of “Hear our prayer, O Lord.” The picture on the screen then often included an ear. Then for a couple of months we used, “Lord, listen to your children praying” and there were pictures of children. For the past 6 weeks or so, we’ve used an Indonesian song, “ask your God”. That’s our conclusion today. When we’re not sure about the understanding of something, or we’ve figured it out too much to our own advantage, we need to ask God.
In Matthew 13 there are two times that Jesus’ disciples “asked their God” for explanations. One time it was, “Why do you teach in parables?” The other time it was, “Please explain that parable to us.” They did what Jacob didn’t do. They asked. They did what WE need to do, ASK. As we sing in the song, “there will surely be an answer….” We need to ask, because when we “figure it out ourselves,” we’re likely, if not sure, to go wrong. That’s not because we’re bad, but because like Jacob, and like the field in the parable, we’re mixed. So, for the short term, ask, and for the long term, trust in God. It will be sorted out in the end.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN