Two things today. The first is ‘vocation’ and the second is ‘promise’ and, whilst last week we shifted into reflecting on the Gospel reading, this week we are back in the book of Genesis and the ongoing story of Abraham, Isaac and (now) Jacob.
Back in my school days we studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet for A level English and my year group put on a performance of the play in the Bishop’s Palace in Hereford. All that I have from that performance is one photograph that now turns up once in a while on the digital photo frame in my study. And there I am, aged 17, stood alongside Andrew Harwood. He is wearing a white turtlenecked jumper, my jumper is black and who are we? Well, we are Hamlet’s two friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, called in by his uncle to try to get to the bottom of what is upsetting him. I’m darned if I can remember which of the two I was – the pair are so often confused that Tom Stoppard wrote a play (Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are dead) in which everyone mixes them up and calls them by the wrong names. Stoppard’s play is also interesting because he focusses it on these two ‘side characters’ from Shakespeare and tries to imagine what they think is going on when they are (so to speak) offstage, not part of Shakespeare’s action.
Why do I tell you this? Well because in these first chapters of the scripture our writer is rapidly focussing in on his main protagonists – those who will carry the vocation and promise of being the people of God. Abram gives way to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob (who we know will change his name to Israel) and sometime soon we will be introduced to the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob’s descendants). But along the way, other characters are slowly being ‘written out’ of the story and that can sometimes be unnerving. We all like an underdog so wasn’t it just cruel to side-line Ishmael a few chapters back and to send him and his mother Hagar off into the desert to die? And as we have turned the pages of the story and glimpsed something of the rivalry between the twin brothers Esau and Jacob what do we make of the fact that God ‘chooses’ Jacob and leaves Esau to do his own thing? That doesn’t seem fair either.
Except, when you spend just a little more time reading the scripture (and you fill in the gaps that our Sunday readings can’t give us) God does make space for Hagar and Ishmael: they are indeed sent off into the desert but He protects them. More than this, he promises them his blessing, Ishmael flourishes and a great dynasty springs from him. And for all that Esau sells his birthright to the devious Jacob and who is also tricked by his brother out of Isaac’s blessing it is Esau, of course, who continues to live in the land of Promise and grows strong whilst Jacob runs for his life with nothing to his name.
At Wednesday’s communion service I passed on to the congregation a thought I’d stumbled across about the oracle the twin brothers’ mother had received from God ‘which had predicted that ‘the older shall serve the younger’. This is universally understood to mean that Esau would give way to Jacob, and indeed, it is Jacob’s story that the scripture follows. But apparently the Hebrew leaves open the possibility of this reading being somewhat ambiguous: it could just be ‘the younger shall serve the older’. If you don’t know how things pan out in the story of Jacob and Esau my apologies for the ’spoiler’ but, a few chapters on (when Jacob returns to make peace with Esau) he does so by offering him a huge share of his wealth and by bowing before him 7 times. ‘Who is serving who?’ we might ask.
The point of this is to make clear that God’s call on one person’s life does not mean He has no interest in another person and their life. Within the church of God we have hopefully got passed the idea that God is only interested in the clergy, that they are the ones with a vocation and everyone else is somehow ‘second class’. No. We are all called. It is just that our vocations and ministries are different. But broadening that out let’s also recognise that though we all, as Christians have a shared vocation to proclaim the work of God, that does not mean that He has no interest in what those who have yet to discover or recognise this work are up to or doing in His world. God’s blessing is poured out on all His creation and His presence in our neighbours’ lives is surely clear: in the love between and within families, in the building up of community, in the nurture of our children and the care of our elderly. In the cultural life of this place. In the skills of insights of our scientists and craftspeople His blessing is upon us. You can add to the list I am sure.
The scripture tells us the story of the people of God – it is our story. It speaks of our vocation to reflect God’s presence to His world: a high vocation to fulfil as partners, as parents and children, employers and employees, friends and neighbours, in work and retirement, in good health and poor health – to seek to live lives filled with His presence. But we do this in humility recognising God’s work amongst those we live alongside: We are not the great ‘I am’. We have done nothing to deserve God’s choosing. We do not have all the answers. What we have is a sense of God’s grace and goodness. This we celebrate. This we offer.
And then to change gear, to shift into the bible passage proper as Jacob pulls his cloak around him and lies down to sleep ‘heaven knows where’. Alongside Jacob’s utter failure to fulfil his vocation – his life of deceit that has brought him to the point of having to run for his life from Esau – here we meet God’s faithfulness and unshakeable promise to be with His people.
Just a few chapters back we read of how Abram laid down strict instructions that his son Isaac should, on no circumstances, leave the land where the family had settled – Abram’s slave was to find him a wife and bring her to Isaac, Isaac was not leave home! But what have we here? Jacob, Isaac’s son, is fleeing the Promised land and heading north to Haran. He is on his way to his next nearest relatives – to his mother Rebekah’s family. But the thing is, he is not in the Promised Land anymore. He is in exile and will be in exile for many years.
Again, those of you who know your scriptures can perhaps join the dots. The story of the Old Testament is of repeated cycles of faithlessness & failure that lead to repentance, forgiveness and return to God’s embrace. Along the way, there is exile and return. Joseph and his brothers will soon be down in Egypt. Moses will lead them home. But then there will be invasions of the land and humiliations of God’s people that culminate in the mass enslavement of God’s people and their exile to Babylon. All these things lie ahead of us in this story, but what does our story show us. God’s promise is unbreakable. Nothing can shift it or take it away. ‘Know that I am with you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Jacob, as yet, does not understand the strength of these words but we can, we do. These words we can take to ourselves and make our own.
Wherever you are – I am with you. Whoever you are – I am with you. No place, no experience where God is not. No place of fear or anxiety, no place of guilt or regret where God is not. No place of loneliness, pain or depression that he cannot penetrate. No place of joy and exultation that He does not share.
He is. He is Present to His world: sustaining, holding, leading, cajoling, guiding, nurturing, challenging, forgiving, redeeming, renewing. This is the God we worship. This is the God we make known. This is the God who has called us by His name and whom we serve: ‘the maker and keeper of our days’. As our psalm put it: ‘safe in His hands, all creation is made new’. We praise Him.
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