July 23, 2017

7th Sunday of Pentecost
‘JOURNEY INTO THE PROMISE’

BIBLE READINGS
Genesis 28:10-22
Psalm 86
Romans 8:12-25

REFLECTION

The reading that we have today from the book of Genesis continues the saga of Abraham’s family. Two Sundays ago, we heard the story about Abraham’s son, Isaac, forming a family with the love of his life, Rebecca. Last Sunday, we heard how Rebecca gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob, and how Jacob, with the help of his mother, stole Isaac’s blessing that was supposed to be given to Esau, the eldest son in the family. That was the second time Jacob stole what was supposed to be Esau’s right. As the result, Esau hated Jacob and tried to kill him, but Jacob ran away from his family’s house.

Our reading today continues that story. Jacob was on the run, alone, in the middle of nowhere. He was afraid, tired, hungry, thirsty, and fell asleep in the outdoor, with only a stone to lay his head on.

But God visited him in his dream. For the ancient people, and even for many people today, a dream was not only a psychological phenomenon; an activity of the brain;

for them, a dream was a means by which the divine communicated with mortals. So the dream that Jacob had was not only a dream; it was a means by which God communicated with him.

In his dream, Jacob saw a stairway or a ramp that connected heaven with earth, and he saw angels going up and down on it. But God was not on the stairway; God was on Jacob’s side. With many people, God spoke through the angels, God’s messengers. This time, God spoke directly to Jacob. God met Jacob at his most vulnerable time and God came to him in a personal and intimate way. God promised Jacob that God would be with him, by his side, until God fulfilled what God had promised to his grandfather, Abraham.

But Jacob was forever the schemer. He doubted God’s promise so he bargained with God. God gave the promise with no condition, free of charge and with no strings attached; yet Jacob wanted to put his own ‘terms and conditions’ in the covenant. He wanted to make sure that the deal would work in his favor and that he would get the best out of this agreement with God.

So Jacob told God that God would only become his God if God did everything that God promised to Jacob. Even more, he told God that he would give a tenth of everything that God gave to him if, and only if, God fulfilled the promise.

Little did Jacob know that his journey would be a long journey. When Rebecca asked Jacob to leave and stay with his uncle, Laban, she was hoping that Jacob didn’t have to leave for long. Literally in Hebrews, she asked Jacob to stay for some days with her brother.[1] But Jacob would actually be away for 20 years! And that was the last time that the mother and the son would see each other.

Yet when Jacob did return to the place, 20 years later, he had become a different man. When he finally returned to the same place in Beth-El, just like what God promised, he didn’t return alone. He returned with his wives, and children, and herds, and all the possessions that he had acquired during his time away.

But his relationship with his brother, Esau, had not been restored and he was about to see Esau for the very first time after 20 years of running away. So he prayed to God, asking for God’s protection. But he prayed a different prayer than how he prayed in our passage this morning. 20 years after, there was no bargaining in the prayer, only trust in God. This was what he said:

 “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, hear me! You told me, Lord, to go back to my land and to my relatives, and you would make everything go well for me. I am not worth all the kindness and faithfulness that you have shown me, your servant. I crossed the Jordan with nothing but a walking stick, and now I have come back with these two groups. Save me, I pray, from my brother Esau. I am afraid—afraid that he is coming to attack us and destroy us all, even the women and children. Remember that you promised to make everything go well for me and to give me more descendants than anyone could count, as many as the grains of sand along the seashore.”[2]

I like another version of the prayer by Harold Kushner.[3] He has Jacob say:

“I have something hard; I know it’s right and I’m not sure I can do it. If you help me, maybe I can do it. If you leave me on my own, I know I’ll fall on my face the way I have every other time I’ve tried to do this.... I’ve spend my whole life running from confrontation. I’m tired of running. Help me face up to this and get through this crisis.”

Jacob left his home with nothing but a walking stick and an immature and selfish self, yet he returned as a grown-up man of faith.. At the end of his life, when he was lying on his death bed, he called God as:

“The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day...”[4]

At the end of his life, there was no trace left of the egoistic man who bargained with God in Beth-El. At the end of his life, what was left was a man who trusted God and had held on to God’s promise to him for most of his life. God fulfilled God’s promise to Jacob by bringing him back to the land of his childhood safely, yet the man who received the fulfillment of the promise was a different man from the man who left the land 20 years ago.

Jacob’s story reminds me of the story of another man. Ron Kovic was an ordinary American who grew up in a middle-class suburb in 1950s.

The streets where he grew up were clean and were filled with beautiful classic cars. American flags flied in almost every store.[5]

Ron was born on 4th July, the American Independence Day. As such, his mother believed that Ron was destined for greatness. She believed that one day, her son would be a famous man who did a great service to his nation. Ron was a good athlete in high school and his mother believe that his destiny was to make his country proud by becoming a champion in wrestling.

Things took unexpected turn however. When Vietnam War broke out, Ron enlisted in the US Marines. He was posted in Vietnam twice, witnessing the horrors of war first hand, including the unnecessary killings of civilians: men, women and children. During an engagement with the enemy forces in his second tour, he was shot twice. He suffered a collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury, causing him to be completely paralyzed from the waist down.

Ron returned to America as an injured paraplegic veteran. He was bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His dream, and his mother’s dream, of him becoming a world-famous athlete was well and truly over.

But that was not the end of Ron’s predicament. Even though he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart for his bravery in the war, he would soon find himself neglected and abandoned by the US government. He felt that he became a second-class citizen in his own country and his sacrifice was for nothing. As the result, he resorted to alcohol and fell into despair.

He found his redemption when he started becoming a staunch critic of the Vietnam war. Gradually, he became one of the most well-known peace activists amongst the Vietnam war veterans.

Because of his activism, he became the subject of abuse, ridicule, and further isolation. People accused him as a traitor. Yet he dedicated his life to oppose the wars that the US got involved not out of hatred, but love for his country.

In 1976, he became the speaker in the Democratic National Convention and he became a symbol of defiance that helped America free itself from the quagmire of war that it found itself in. He wrote a best-selling autobiography titled, Born on the Fourth of July, which was later adapted into a Hollywood movie nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning two of the nominations.[6]

In the end, Ron Kovic fulfilled his ‘destiny’ to become a man who served his country greatly. But the fulfillment of his ‘destiny’ was different from the version of his vision when he was young. He serves his country not as a sporting champion, but as a man who reminds his country about the perils of war.

Friends, in Jesus, God promises that God would bring the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God here on earth where there will be no more suffering and cry. And God’s promise remains, despite all the tragedies or wars or violence that we witness or experience. But we will never know when and how God would fulfill that promise. In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us that if we could see what we hope for, then it is not really a hope.

We are in for a surprise when wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise. But we will miss the surprise if we give up halfway.

So hang in there! Keep your faith! And see how your life too will be changed as you wait for the Lord!

Amen.
Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, Commentary on Genesis 28:10-19a on
http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3355 (July 23 2017)

[2] Genesis 32:9-12 (GNT)

[3] Harold Kushner in Dolly K. Patterson (ed.) Questions of Faith, Trinity Press International: Philadelphia, ã 1990

[4] Genesis 48:15 (NRSV)

[5] We Shouldn't Forget Born on the Fourth of July, an article on
http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a29207/born-on-the-fourth-of-july-25-year-later/

[6] From different sources, including Wikipedia page about Ron Kovic on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Kovic