What sort of person do you suppose God uses? Would you have to be incredibly holy, incredibly good? No? Well, you would certainly have to believe in God, wouldn’t you?
Not even that! Look at that wretch of a Jacob, part of whose story formed our first lesson today. Jacob was not a nice person. In fact, he was one of the nastiest people in the Bible. He is, of course, the younger of the twin sons of Isaac, and a grandson of Abraham. He is his mother’s favourite, and spends his time indoors, doing the cooking and generally keeping the encampment going, while Esau does the outside work and looks after the flocks and herds. You remember, of course, the infamous story of how Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew one cold day when he was hungry. Lentil stew is good, but not that good! Esau also married a couple of foreign wives, and, according to Genesis 26:35, “they made life bitter for Isaac and Rebecca”.
And it was partly because of that, I think, that Rebecca helped Jacob trick Esau out of his father’s blessing. You remember how she helps him tie goatskin over his hands, so that his father thinks it’s Esau. Although I’m not sure quite how much Isaac was fooled: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau”. Anyway, Isaac goes along with it, and gives Jacob his blessing. But, of course, Esau is furious, and plans to kill Jacob, so Jacob has to flee. And it’s while he’s on the run that our reading starts.
It’s a familiar reading - the vision of the ladder, or staircase, between earth and heaven, with the angels going up and down it. And God, speaking directly to Jacob, assuring him of his love and blessing, reaffirming that God will be with him on his travels, and will bring him safely home. And when Jacob wakes, he knows he’s been with God: “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
I wish I could say that from that time on Jacob was a changed person. But he wasn’t. For him, God was associated with places, not people. Bethel, where he had his dream, was a place where God lived, and despite God’s promise of being with him all the time, Jacob didn’t seem to want to know. He goes on lying and cheating, and Laban, his father-in-law lies to and cheats him. Eventually, he has to flee again, having built up his herds by selective breeding to the point where Laban is quite sure he has been stealing from him. And it is quite obvious that the family do not worship God, as they take with them the “household gods” from Laban’s tents, and it is those which Laban comes after them to rescue. Except that Rachel, one of Jacob’s wives, hides them in the camel saddle and sits on them, refusing to get up!
And, of course, his sons are every bit as bad; Joseph, Rachel’s eldest, is conceited and arrogant, knowing that he is the favourite, he blithely informs his family that God has shown him in a dream that one day they will all be bowing down to him. Irritated beyond bearing - I don’t suppose for one moment that this was the only time Jacob had preened himself in front of his family - the brothers plot to kill him, but end up selling him to slavery in Egypt.
Such an unpromising family. And yet, it was them that God used to create the Children of Israel, the twelve tribes. God’s chosen people. It seems so improbable, somehow. With our knowledge of genetics, we would probably think that this would be the very last family that God would choose. Even Abraham, the founder, was far from perfect, lying to save his own skin, failing to trust God and taking the matter of succession into his own hands, and so on.
You know, we Christians have our saints, the holy ones of God. They always seem, in the stories about them, to be absolutely perfect, always holy, always loving God, always doing miracles. We call these sorts of story “hagiography”, from the Greek word “hagios”, and I can’t remember whether that means saint or holy. Kit would know.
Anyway, that’s exactly what the authors of the book of Genesis don’t indulge in. They are not hagiographers. They are telling the story of God’s people exactly as they were, warts and all. As I understand it, this sort of story seems to be the oldest versions of the stories we have. The slightly newer rewrites, some of which have got mixed into the text, tend to be more hagiographical. They tend to present the people in a better light.
I suppose it’s inevitable, really. If your gods lived in well-defined places, such as the river, or a temple, or even the Ark of the Covenant, you could put on your best clothes and your best manners when you went to see them. But if God is omnipresent and omnipotent, then God sees you exactly as you are, whether you are at your best or at your worst. God sees behind the smiling faces you put on to church, to the row you were having with someone just minutes before!
I have never liked the cardboard service-sheets we’ve been using since “Common Worship” came in, because it says “Saying hello” at the preparation part of the service. As though we thought God lived in Church, and could only see us when we put on our best clothes and Sunday smiles. I know we don’t think that, but it could be misleading! Rather like bowing to the Communion table, which I know for some people is an act of reverence, but it feels, to me, as though people thought that is where God lives….
The point is, of course, that God doesn’t just live in Church, or on the altar. God is, so we believe, omnipresent. Jesus says that God has even numbered the hairs on our heads, which may or may not be of any comfort to those who haven’t many left! We are told that not one sparrow perishes without God knowing about it. And, the implication is, minding about it.
When I was younger, that sort of thought used to be the most terrific guilt-producer. I felt it was incumbent on me to be perfect the whole time, always focussed on God, never even thinking any thought that was not holy and perfect! And, of course, setting myself up totally for failure! I didn’t somehow realise that this was not what holiness is all about! I thought I was responsible for my salvation, and that God would exclude me if I wasn’t totally perfect.
I think I needed to read my Bible a bit more carefully! It strikes me now that I’d missed the whole point of Christianity, which was that the whole thing was God’s idea! Our salvation comes about through what Jesus did on the cross, not through our own efforts. Our wholeness, or holiness, is due to the work of the Holy Spirit within us, again, not by our own efforts. And the more we allow God to work in us, the more we become unique, individual, ourselves.
What’s more, we don’t have to wait until we are perfect. If we did, we’d never do anything! But if God can use the descendants of Abraham, such a dysfunctional family as they were, such criminals, so arrogant, so - well, not the sort of person we’d want in our church, are they? If God can use them, and God did use them, very much so, then God can surely use us, too.
I’ll point out, just in conclusion, too, that God used Jacob and Joseph and so on almost in spite of themselves. They didn’t go out looking to be used of God - they were barely God-conscious. Jacob may have met with God at Bethel, but as far as he was concerned, God stayed in Bethel while Jacob went on. We needn’t go struggling to find out how God wants to use us - it will probably happen willy-nilly! Let’s just relax and enjoy being God’s people, enjoy God’s love, and enjoy the fact that God can and will use us, too. Amen.