Jacob means wily. He was aptly named. He had, from the womb, both a vise grip and light fingers, a tenacity for laying hold and not letting go, and a skill for taking other people’s stuff. He rode into this world, literally, on the heels of his twin sibling Esau, and then spent his early years getting the upper hand on him – tricking and tempting his poor dull brother out of his birthright and then, most grievously, his blessing.
After Jacob, by posing as Esau, steals the blessing, this:
After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.”
His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?”
“I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.”
Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!”
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!”
But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Then he asked, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me?”
Isaac answered Esau, “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?”
Esau said to his father, “Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” Then Esau wept aloud.
His father Isaac answered him,
“Your dwelling will be
away from the earth’s richness,
away from the dew of heaven above.
You will live by the sword
and you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck” (Genesis 27:30-40).
Bless me – me too, father!
That’s the heart cry of every man and every woman throughout the ages. Bless me – me too, father! We long to hear our own fathers speak words like those Isaac spoke over Jacob:
May God give you dew from heaven and make your fields fertile! May he give you plenty of grain and wine! May nations be your servants, and may peoples bow down before you. May you rule over all your relatives, and may your mother's descendants bow down before you. May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed (Genesis 27:28-29).
May you be a winner. Spectacular. May every thing you touch flourish, and everyone you meet be wowed. You have what it takes. Go!
This entire story is echoed in a famous New Testament passage, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. That story has been misnamed for years. It’s not mostly about the young rascal with his bent for hard drugs and fast women; it’s about the older brother, with his dour piety and rigid sense of duty. And, especially, it’s about his seething resentment over his younger brother stealing the blessing.
After the young hellion returns, only to be given more, to be met by a weeping, laughing, dancing father whose first impulse is to throw a lavish “Welcome Home” party, the older son’s bitterness erupts. His cry isn’t, “Bless me too, father.” It’s a scathing accusation: “You’ve never blessed me.” Thus:
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” (Luke 15:28-31).
You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
This is subversive. This changes everything. Before Jesus, blessing was scarce. It was meted out. It was rationed carefully, sparingly, grudgingly. There was generally one blessing per household: miss it, you get the dregs.
But now “out of the fullness of [Christ’s] grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another” (John 1:16; GNT).
You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
The words the Father speaks over his Son Jesus are in one sense for him alone. But in another sense, everything he has is yours. And so it is right and fitting that you, right here, right now, hear the voice of the Father say this to you, directly, personally (adjust the gender as called for):
You are my son, whom I love, whom I have chosen. With you I am well pleased. Everyone, listen to him (Mark 1:11 & Luke 9:35).
Whether or not your earthly father has ever spoken such blessing over you, your heavenly Father says it, again and again.
Out of his fullness, he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another. Everything he has is yours.
Jesus has two favorite disguises: the least of these, and the servant.
It’s hard to say which he likes or uses more. Sometimes he combines them, appearing as the lowly servant, the slave in rags. Is he here to help or be helped?
The funny thing is, he tells us plainly these are his two most common disguises, and yet we often miss him anyhow. We keep looking for that lantern-jawed hero, and he keeps showing up as the chinless beggar or the shuffling cleaning lady. We want spectacle. He prefers hiddenness. We want miracle. He deals mostly in cups of cold water. We look for a man in fine clothes. He shows up, unnervingly, with none at all.
But we can’t claim he didn’t warn us:
“…I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:35-40).
I wear, he says, the disguise of the least of these.
And I wear the disguise of the servant:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8).
I tell you that to tell you this: I had several sightings of Jesus last week. Cheryl and I were the guests of World Vision Canada on a tour of some of World Vision’s projects in northeast Brazil. I have been on several ministry-related trips before, and I anticipated this would be like those.
It was and it wasn’t. I saw, as I have on every trip like this I’ve been on, remarkable work being done by dedicated people. I witnessed, as I have each time, the gospel in motion: being lived, and breathed, and declared in word and deed.
But what was different this time was how often I caught sight of Jesus himself, in one of his disguises, or both together.
One story to serve for dozens.
In a shanty-town – in South America, they’re called favelas – we met Paulo. He looks like an ex-bouncer, and maybe is. He wore a shirt of the brightest pink I’ve ever seen. If Plato’s right, and everything on earth is only a dim reflection of a heavenly prototype, that shirt is the prototype for pink.
As we walked through the favela with Paulo, it quickly became clear that he was a local hero: children ran to him, teens high-fived him, adults rushed up to shake his hand. At first I didn’t know why, but as the day unfolded, and we heard Paulo’s story, it all became clear.
Paulo is Jesus. He makes the word flesh and moves into the neighborhood. He has, in his own words, two goals: to keep children from all that would destroy them – drugs, crime, prostitution, no education, no dream – and to rescue those who have already fallen prey to these things.
He’s succeeding beyond anything I could ask or imagine. We heard the testimony of three of his boys. All had been drug dealers. All had done prison time. One had killed others. Everyone had given up on them.
But not Paulo. He loved them, and called them to Christ and his kingdom, and stuck with them, and poured into them. And slow, slow, each came. They found hope, and healing, and a life worth living. They found Christ.
And now they go and do likewise.
All because one man was so available to Christ that Christ could fully inhabit and does his work through him. At first, I didn’t see it, it was so cleverly disguised. But once I did, I could see nothing else.
But it makes me wonder: how often am I missing Jesus right in my midst?
And even more: Am I Jesus in disguise for anyone?
It’s snowing in Alberta today, and minus 10. It’s snowed all week. Actually, it’s snowed here since October 6, non-stop, except for a few times it stopped.
It’s almost April. And minus 10. And snowing.
Someone didn’t get the memo. This is no longer fun, funny, or charming. It ‘s no longer tolerable. I am close to organizing a petition to have south-western Alberta removed to BC, with full benefits.
In the book of Job, when God finally shows up to pepper the poor sufferer with a barrage of questions, he asks,
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?”
The question is rhetorical. The answer is supposed to be, “Of course not. How could I?” But that was only because Job had never been to Alberta. If Premier Alison Redford hadn’t already been deposed over spending tax-payers’ money for her First-Class flights to exotic locals (a crime of passion for which I have deep sympathy), I’d write and ask her to consider changing the provincial motto. It’s currently “Wild Rose Country.” I think “Storehouse for Times of Trouble” is more befitting.
I’m especially distraught because this was the weekend I intended to finally bring my motorcycle out of cold storage. I had it all planned: the insurance kicked in yesterday, the bike was to go in the shop this morning, I was to be terrorizing the locals by mid-day.
But it’s snowing, and minus 10.
So I sit writing this, nursing a grudge, cursing the weather.
And then I catch myself. This is a hardship? This is a grievance? Why am I so soft, so pampered, so entitled?
My whole life I’ve had to push against the massiveness of my own littleness. “Nothing is as hard to suppress,” the great Jewish Philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “as the will to be a slave to one's own pettiness.” How I know it. The plight of those who genuinely suffer is often lost to me in my grousing about minor inconveniences: a delay, a detour, a disruption. Ice on the walkway.
So I teach myself, daily, to give thanks in the face of my overwhelming temptation to complain. It changes nothing. And it yet it changes everything.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
I am preparing (among approximately one thousand other things) to teach this spring at Regent College a course on the story of David.[*] So I soak daily in his story and his songs, and then scrounge and rummage around in a multitude of commentaries, biographies, novels, reflections. Though David has been for me an almost constant companion since I first came to faith over 30 years ago, the better I know him the less I understand him. He is a walking contradiction: poetic, barbaric, tender, ruthless, holy, lusty, child-like, serpentine. He shows extravagant mercy at one turn, gaudy blood-thirst at the next. He can switch from piety to villainy quicker than blinking.
The man embodies paradox.
I’ll try to draw all this out in the course I’ll teach on David, as I’ve tried to draw it all out in the novel I’ve written about him (forthcoming). David is not our role model: he’s our mirror. He is not our exemplar: he’s our brother. He often inspires us, but just as often startles and disgusts us, puzzles and enrages us. He exposes our own heart’s strange wild mess, the chiaroscuro of light and dark raging in our own bellies.
But the deeper and longer I inhabit his story, the more and more one thing stands out above all: God loves David, and David knows it. “Like everyone else,” Harold Bloom writes, “from Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan down to the present, Yahweh is charmed by David…. Yahweh is the God who fell in love with David.”
In Louis Ginzberg’s monumental 7-volume work The Legend of the Jews, a skillful compilation of the Jewish haggadah or oral tradition, he retells the story of David in Paradise. According to the legend, David is the superstar of the afterlife, a personage of “glory and grandeur,” whose throne sits opposite God’s and from which David “intones wondrously beautiful psalms.” David’s “crown… outshines all others, and whenever he moves out of Paradise to present himself before God, suns, stars, angels, seraphim, and other holy beings run to meet him.”
But the main thrust of the legend is David’s relationship with God. God throws a lavish feast on the Day of Judgment, and God at David’s bidding himself attends. At the end of the banquet, God invites Abraham to pray over the cup of wine. Abraham declines on grounds of his unworthiness. So God asks Isaac, who for similar reasons declines. God then turns to Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua. All beg off for reasons of unworthiness.
Finally, God asks David to bless the cup. And David replies, “Yes, I will pronounce the blessing, for I am worthy of the honor.”[†]
At first blush, this shocks us. It seems brazen effrontery, damnable hubris, reality-defying delusion. Who do you think you are?
On second thought, this sounds biblical. The heart of the Bible’s message, muted in the Old Covenant but shouted aloud in page after page of the New, is the improbable, astonishing, breathtaking good news that I am the one Jesus loves.
I am the tax-collector whose house Jesus had to enter, so that salvation could invade it. I am the leper who cried out to Jesus on his way past Samaria, so that he could speak wholeness into me and then woo me back to worship him. I am the lame man whose friends lowered me down through the rafters, so that Jesus could speak forgiveness and healing to me. I am the invalid Jesus found in a dark part of town, bed-ridden and complaining, so that he could say to me, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk.” I am the prodigal he saw a long way off, who ran to me, threw a feast for me, put his robe and ring and sandals on me. I am the elder brother who refused to join the party, and so he went out to me and begged me to come in. I am Lazarus, the one he raised from the dead and then invited to recline with him at the table.
I am not worthy to bless the cup, except he makes me so. At great cost, all by his own doing, Jesus makes me his own, loves me without condition, forgives me without remainder, places his own name on me, puts his own Spirit in me, and goes ahead to prepare a place for me. He’s made me a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, one who belongs to God.
I am the one Jesus loves.
As are you.
I never tire of telling my students at Ambrose Seminary[‡] this. It is the wellspring of all we do and all we are. All life and ministry is overflow. And the inflow is this one thing: knowing and relishing and never forgetting that I am the one Jesus loves.
There is a famous story about the theologian Karl Barth, maybe as legendary as the story Ginsberg tells about David – and yet, like that story, resonant with deep truth. It goes like this: near the end of Barth’s life, having written the most monumental theological work of the 20th Century, having read virtually every other theological work ever penned, a journalist asks him, “What is the greatest truth you’ve ever heard?”
To which Barth replies, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible the Bible tells me so.”
Amen and amen.
[†] Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible, 550-551.