July 08, 2011
In Preaching and Reading the Lectionary: A Three-Dimensional Approach to the Liturgical Year, O. Wesley Allen Jr. advocates for a what he calls a cumulative preaching strategy that focuses more on the sweep of a year’s worth of preaching than any one particular sermon. As Allen explains “all pastors know (or at least hope), deep in their hearts, that the great power of preaching lies less in the individual sermon and more in the cumulative effect of preaching week in and week out to the same congregation, to the same community of believers, doubters and seekers…sermons offered Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year weave together to have an immeasurable cumulative influence on individuals’ and the congregation’s understanding of God, self, and the world.” (ix) To that end, Allen examines the patterns of the lectionary and the way the lectionary can be used a whole year at a time.
Viewed from this cumulative perspective, this week’s reading from Genesis continues a story in progress. During the second Sunday of Pentecost we find ourselves climbing Mount Moriah with Abraham and Isaac wondering how the covenantal promise of Genesis 15 will survive the command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. In the 3rd week of Pentecost the lectionary continues the story of the covenantal promise of God as we move from the near death of Isaac in Genesis 22 to Genesis 24 where Isaac marries Rebekah. Through their life together the promise will continue its slow march through history. Following their marriage, the lectionary leaps forward twenty years bringing us quickly to the birth of Esau and Jacob with a story that foreshadows the rocky road this covenantal promise will have to travel. Next week in Genesis 28:13-15 God will confirm the continuation of the promise through Jacob despite the means through which he has procured the family birth right and blessing. In these varied and seemingly ad hoc selections, God and God’s covenant with Abraham remain the central theme that runs throughout.
The genealogical data of vss. 19-20 serve to alert the reader to the truth that in Genesis 25.19 we join a story in progress. By reminding us of the family and place of origin of both Isaac and his wife Rebekah the text gives us our first hint that this is the story of God’s promise to Abraham. The promise runs into trouble immediately. In vs. 21a twenty years have passed since the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah and their inability to produce an heir introduces our first source of tension into the reading. Isaac prays for Rebekah and an heir and the tension is seemingly relieved by vs. 21b when God responds to Isaac’s prayer. “And the LORD granted his prayer and his wife Rebekah conceived.” However, this pregnancy does not resolve the sense of anxiety about the future but actually serves to heighten the conflict in the text as we find that the pregnancy is troubled. As the babies jostle within her Rebekah finds herself in nearly unbearable living conditions and so she cries out to the LORD, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Rebekah’s prayer is answered by God but not in the way we might expect.
God’s response to Rebekah reveals that Rebekah and her twin boys have been swept up into the larger story of the faithfulness of God to God’s own promises. Rebekah prays about her pained and troubled pregnancy. Rebekah’s pain is answered not with personal words of love and grace that we might expect from a ‘nice’ God who exists primarily to encourage us in times of trial. Rather than respond with words of assurance that all will be well, the LORD tells Rebekah that her troubled pregnancy is just the beginning of the conflict that her family will face. Here we see that the continuation of the promise is larger than any one person or personal trial. Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau have been swept up into the larger drama of salvation history, a drama that will include entire nations (the tensions between Israel and Edom are foreshadowed here) and influence all of creation history.
The remaining verses tell us only the barest details of the personality of each of the twin boys. Their differences are highlighted in vss. 27-28 along with the contrasting affections of their two parents. Beginning in vs. 29 the text recounts to us the puzzling story of Esau trading away his birth right. The brevity with which the story is told is striking. Very little text is given to explanation. Rather the text simply recounts the events as they happened. This odd transaction leaves the reader with many questions. We wonder just how hungry Esau had to be to trade away his birthright. Was he truly starving? Why wouldn’t Jacob offer some stew to his brother? Did Jacob mislead Esau as to the contents of the stew? We are not privileged to such information because the text is simply not concerned with any of these questions.
Perhaps even more surprising is the lack of moral commentary. Save for vs. 34b “So Esau despised his birthright” no moral judgments are made about the event or the character of either brother. This is not an Aesop’s Fable that can be boiled down to a lesson on living well. This is not a morality tale with commentary on Jacob’s sleazy dealings with his dim witted high school jock of a brother. Put differently, the story is not about either brother or the odd deal they strike. The text is not concerned with condemning them or exhorting us. Rather we are shown the path of the promise from Isaac to Jacob rather than his older brother Esau.
The content of this birthright is not given in the text and the blessing of Isaac has yet to be given to Jacob (the promise is not passed on explicitly until 27.27-29 and 29.1-5). Nevertheless, the reader is not left wondering what has taken place. The promise of God to Abraham, the promise of a land and a people, continues through the children of Isaac and Rebekah. Further the word of the LORD for Rebekah (“Two nations are in your womb…”) begins to mature in a way that highlights the difficult path that the promise has yet to travel. In next week’s reading, God confirms the birthright and the blessing that will be bestowed upon Jacob leaving no doubt that God will use Jacob to further God’s covenant with Abraham.
The text is rich with preaching possibilities, some better than others. One could envision a sermon on ‘The power of a praying marriage” or “Dealing with sibling rivalry in a Christian household.” By utilizing a cumulative preaching strategy, the preacher can avoid trivializing the text by focusing on the God who makes promises that take generations to come to fruition. This week, as last week, and next week, allow the faithfulness of God and God’s promises to be the good news for which the people of God are longing.