Scripture: Genesis 27:1–4 and 15–23; 28:10–17
“God blesses the strangest people.”
That was the first thought as Jacob awoke from his dream. He had lived his whole life just outside of the shadow of blessing. His grandfather, Abraham, had been blessed by God. Yahweh came to him with the blessings of land and prosperity, and even though it took a while, he had received both. His father, Isaac, had lived what some might call a privileged life…born in a miraculous way to a mother too old to conceive, saved by the grace of God on Mt. Moriah, given in marriage to a beautiful woman, his mother Rebekah.
But Jacob had always lived just outside of the shadow of those blessings. He was second-born to his twin brother Esau, seconds away from the blessing due the first-born, but instead left out in the cold. He would receive none of the blessings and prosperity that Esau did. Esau was the mighty hunter. Esau was the manly and good-looking one that the locals all wanted to marry their daughters. Esau was the first-born, and he would be the one to receive all of the blessings. They never quite made it all the way to Jacob.
Until he took matters into his own hands. Or at least tried to. In league with his mother, Jacob engaged in an agenda of deceit and manipulation to make those blessings his own. He fooled Esau into giving up his birthright. He fooled both his brother and his father into giving up his blessing. And while he always wondered if his father deep down knew that it was him instead of Esau that he was blessing, the bottom line is that it all became moot pretty soon. As soon as Esau found out, he went into a murderous rage. Jacob was forced to pack in a hurry and leave for a land which he did not know. All his work, his deceit, his manipulation, and where did it get him? Alone. On the banks of a foreign river. With no prosperity or possessions to his name. Sure, a birthright and blessing are nice, but you can’t eat them when you are hungry. So, with only a rock for a pillow and no tent in sight, Jacob fell asleep.
And there dreamed the most fantastic dream! God’s glory shone all around him, and God’s angels were coming and going to the earth. Suddenly, Jacob found himself in the shadow of the Most High, who spoke directly to him: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep 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 had been born just outside of the shadow of blessing, and try as he could to wrestle it from others, it remained outside of his grasp. But now, inside the shadow of the Most High, he was brought into the promise of his grandfather and father. Not Esau, but him. Jacob. The runt of the family. As he turned that rock on which his head had lain into an altar to God, and poured oil over it, he finally understood. It isn’t about what he deserves. It is about what God freely gives. And God sure blesses the strangest people.”
Jocasta blinked away the tears as she tried to look around the room. The events of the last several years came flooding back to her. She had been born in Rome, to parents who had followed the teachings of Moses. Since she was a little girl, her parents had told her that she was a daughter of Abraham, a descendant of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For them, it was something to be proud of. For the authorities in Rome, it was a reason for violent attack. Just as she was entering her teen years, the Roman government decreed that all of her people must leave the city. With cries of agony and fear, they packed up their belongings and left for a land that they did not know. As they were leaving town, her mother realized she forgot something in their home and went back to get it. Her father left her with family friends and fellow tentmakers, and told them they would be right back. They never came. The Roman officials believed them to be disobeying the order and killed them both on the spot. Jocasta would never see her parents again.
The tentmakers and many of the other Jews who had been removed chose to settle in the city of Corinth. It was an exciting city, filled with new people and new ideas and new temptations, and before long, Jocasta had run away from her community and chose to live a life on the streets. The romantic ideas that inspired her to leave disappeared in a hurry. She was forced to steal, and lie, and eventually prostitute herself to survive. The religious temples to various Roman gods gave her work, and helped her to survive, but they also ate her soul from the inside out. She lived with an overwhelming feeling of guilt and shame. The men in the temples looked at her with contempt. And when she saw someone from her old community in the market, she hid her face in shame. She felt alone, and afraid, and worthless.
Until one day, when one of the other girls invited her to come to a meeting. It was a religious meeting, but nothing like what happened in the temples. This was a group of people who loved each other, and cared for each other, and didn’t seem to care about her past. They spoke of a man named Jesus, who was raised like her as a Jew. A son of Abraham. A follower of the laws of Moses. This Jesus was the fulfillment of all that Moses taught, and he, too, had run up against the violence of the Roman Empire. They killed him for what he taught, but not even death could stop his message of love and grace. And now, here in Corinth, these women and men gathered together. They shared their possessions with one another, and lived out the grace that they spoke about.
The community had been formed by a man named Paul and some of the women and men from her old community. Over time, these people cared for her and showed her a different life. But she couldn’t quite trust it. She didn’t deserve what they wanted to offer. One day, a letter came from Paul. He mentioned people that she knew, and when Jocasta heard their names, her heart leapt. But the word that touched her most deeply, that spoke to her most fully, came near the beginning of the letter. She felt Paul had written these words directly to her: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption…” As Jocasta fell to the ground in tears of gratitude, she knew she had found her new home. What had she done to deserve this? According to Paul, nothing. But she received it anyway. In that moment, with tears in her eyes, she realized it isn’t about what she deserves. It’s about what God freely gives. And God blesses the strangest people.
Jake sat in disbelief behind the wheel of his old, beat-up car, shedding tears of disbelief. Jake was raised in a church home, but when he told his parents who he had fallen in love with, he was no longer welcome in their lives. That romance didn’t last long, but the effects of that conversation sure did. Jake hated his parents and their faith for rejecting him. At his job at a local restaurant, he found several kindred spirits who had similar stories to tell. On breaks, they would play a game called “Roast the Christian,” where they told stories of how their churches had mistreated them or others they knew.
This had become his new family, his community. Then COVID hit. The restaurant did their best to pivot, but the pivot became a downward spiral, and they all cried together the day the owner told them she was closing permanently. Jake was devastated. Not only was his income decimated, but so was his community. He was forced to cobble together several odd jobs, most of them legal, but not all. He was embarrassed and ashamed, but he didn’t have many options. His employers, even the legal ones, forced him to work few enough hours so that they wouldn’t have to pay health insurance. And they knew how desperate he was, so they insisted that he work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
It was a Sunday afternoon when Jake felt miserable. He did what his mom always did when he was sick: took out a can of chicken noodle soup. It didn’t taste like anything, so he added pepper. Then some onions. And finally half a bottle of hot sauce. He still couldn’t taste anything. That’s when he knew something was wrong. The ER they diagnosed him with COVID within the hour. He barely remembered the next several days, simply grateful for the nurses who brought him back to life. His employers laughed at him when he brought them the hospital bill. He couldn’t prove where he got sick. He was on his own.
One late night YouTube binge, the website for the church across the street popped up. He laughed at the irony, but decided to click on it. It would be fun to play “Roast the Christian” by himself! But then something touched him. Something about the songs and the worship. Something about the liturgy and the sermon. It was similar to what he knew, but the people seemed different than the judgmental congregation who rejected him. When they offered communion, something made him wish that he was there. Before he knew it, he had watched three months of services and hadn’t slept all night!
Two days later, on a Tuesday night, he found himself at that church. They had an in-person Bible study, and something told Jake he should be there. He was back the next week, and the next. And while everyone in that Bible study was fifty years older than him, it was exactly what he needed. Eventually, he told them his story. Told them about growing up and leaving the church, about COVID, about the shame and anger and guilt that lived inside him. Told them about his impossible medical bill. Three days later, he received an unmarked envelope with a cashier’s check. For the exact amount of money that he needed to pay off his bills. Jake was floored. This had to be some sort of twisted joke. He took it to the bank and asked them if it was a fake. They ran it and handed him more cash than he had ever seen. As he sat behind the wheel of his car in the bank parking lot, he wept. He didn’t deserve this. Couldn’t deserve it. And that’s when he noticed a quote written inside of the envelope. A quote from Anne Lamott: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” In that moment, Jake understood. It wasn’t about what he deserves. It was about what God freely gave. And God, thought Jake, sure blesses the strangest people.