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The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes is president and professor of pastoral theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ


The All-American Dreamer

Genesis 28:10-19a

Proper 11 - Year A

July 20, 2008

Everybody has a dream. It's the thing that makes you get up in the morning. It is what you are after in life. The dream is what drove you to leave your parents home, get an education, a job; and it's the reason why you moved from one city to another. You may not know exactly what the dream is, but still it runs your life. The dream is what led you into one relationship and out of another. Every important decision you have made in life has been determined by how close it gets you to the dream. The problem is that the dream keeps moving.

Now some people appear to have lives that are naturally dream-like. That is the story of Esau who is Jacob's older brother. Esau drives us crazy. He stumbles into everything the rest of us of are working so hard to achieve, and he takes it all for granted. When we look at all of his prosperity, popularity, his great prospects-well, we know that some people are just born right.

For the rest of us, life has always been a chore. That is why we understand Jacob, whose name means striver, hustler, supplanter. His story describes how life is for those of us who were not born lucky, but are still determined to make something of our lives. Because some people have it made, and others of us have to make it happen. We are in the second group. Believing that nothing is naturally coming our way, we are determined to go out and make our dreams come true. And as Jacob will illustrate for us, that is the best way in the world to really mess up your life.

You see, when it comes to dreams, the only good ones come from God. And God insists on just giving them to us. The most important dreams are things like being loved, having a child, beholding beauty, discovering your purpose in life, finding joy in your work, or finding a friend who will stick with you through anything, even the truth. Those dreams, the things for which we yearn most in life, come only as blessings from God. And blessings can only be received.

There is, however, one thing we can do to prevent ourselves from enjoying these sacred gifts. We can insist on getting them for ourselves. That is the great flaw in Jacob's life. And my life. And maybe yours also. We keep trying to achieve what we can only receive as a gift.

Jacob and Esau were twins. But they were far from being identical twins. Esau was a hairy man of the field. Jacob was a quiet, thoughtful, schemer. Their father was named Isaac, who isn't all that significant a figure except that he was their link to the blessings of life that Jacob wanted more than life itself. However, everyone assumed that these blessings would naturally fall to Esau, the first born. Everyone, that is, except the twins' mother Rebekah, who remembered that God promised to give the blessing to Jacob when the boys were still in her womb.

Surely Rebekah told her son about this promise. God himself repeated it to Jacob on several occasions. But Jacob just couldn't believe it, because everything in the world proclaimed a preference for Esau. The scriptures make it clear that Esau was Isaac's favorite son. Probably when they were boys Esau was chosen first when their friends were picking teams for games. Esau was also picked by the teachers in school. Esau got into the best colleges, he had the highest paying job when he graduated with all those honors. Esau's grass was always greener than Jacob's. Esau's career was off on a meteoric path. His name was in the newspapers. His family was beautiful. So maybe your mamma thinks you're pretty special, but Jacob, you are no Esau. That's the message he constantly heard.

Like Jacob, we all have a twin. From the day we are born we are measuring ourselves against some Esau, some standard of what we think we should be. Esau isn't just Jacob's older brother. He is also the person you and almost everyone else think you have to become before you are going to get any blessings. Esau is the person who is like you, but better. He is your preferred twin, the better projection of your potential.

This means that we're constantly evaluating our lives by Esau's standards, which we drag behind us. No matter what we do, it is never good enough because we believe Esau would have done it better. So we knock ourselves out to fill the image, to become more like the twin who haunts us through life. It is the only way we know how to get his blessing. Eventually we even start to look like this preferred image.

When Isaac had grown old and blind and knew his days on earth were coming to an end, he summoned Esau. It was time to pass the blessing on as Abraham had given it to him, as God had given it to Abraham. But Rebekah heard her husband's instructions, and while Esau was still in the field she summoned Jacob, dressed him up in Esau's clothes, put goat's wool on his neck and hands so he would feel hairy like his older brother. Then she told him to go into Isaac, pretending he was Esau.

When Jacob entered his father's tent, Isaac asked, "Who is there?" Jacob said, "I am Esau." It was a lie, of course. But only a partial lie. By this time Jacob had become so obsessed with Esau. He had already stolen his birthright. He wanted so much for his father to honor him as he did Esau. He had done everything he could to resemble his preferred twin, who had overcome his own identity. So when he said, "I am Esau," he was almost telling the truth. The problem was that God had promised to bless Jacob.

How pathetic this scene must have looked from heaven. Jacob, the man God had chosen to bless, was standing in front of his blind father with goat's wool taped to his neck and hands. God is not blind! God knows who you are and sees through the disguise. And God wants to bless you. But you have to stop pretending!

As a result of Jacob's deception, he has to run away from home because his brother is so angry he wants to kill him. But, of course, Jacob has actually been hustling and running his whole life. And now as he runs away from the inheritance he tried to hustle from his family, he falls to the ground in exhaustion. But maybe there is a blessing even in being a depleted and exhausted failure. For now as he falls asleep, Jacob can receive the dreams of God.

While Jacob was sleeping, a great ladder appeared between heaven and earth. Angels were going up and down the ladder. God himself was at the top saying, "I am the Lord, the god of Abraham your father, and of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants...."

Before this night Jacob had been dreaming that if only he could climb the ladder of success, he would make these wonderful things happen. So he climbed and he climbed-but he never got to his dreams.

You know what it is like to spend so much time, doing whatever it takes, to get up the ladder only to keep falling off. Or worse, to succeed and discover that the ladder was leaning against the wrong building and now you realize that all your hard work has taken you to a place where you do not want to be.

Notice, in God's dream, Jacob isn't even on the ladder. He's not climbing. God is at the top. The angels are the ones going back and forth. And Jacob just receives the blessing, by grace.

That's hard for us strivers-to just receive. But there is no other way to get the grace of God. You can either spend your fleeting years trying to achieve a life, or you can receive a life. If you make achieving your goal, your constant companion will be complaint because you will never achieve enough. But if you make receiving your goal, your constant companion will be gratitude. God has already made the choice to bless you. Now it is your time to choose. Amen.

Let us pray. O God, we ask that you would give us the courage to open our eyes, to open our hearts to receive, to receive what only you can give us, the blessing of being chosen and beloved. Amen.


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