Read: Genesis 27:41-45, 28:10-22 and Luke 4:5-8
“The best things in life are free.” That’s true, isn’t it? It’s also true that the best things in life cannot be bought. Nonetheless we spend an awful lot of time trying to buy our way to happiness, don’t we? When we stand in Jesus’ sandals and the devil gives us a glimpse of all the riches that can be had, we’re tempted to say, “Well maybe just a little, Mister Devil. I don’t need it all, but some of that stuff looks pretty nice.” I don’t think I could turn it ALL down. I think I’d try to work a compromise with the devil; I’ll take just a little of that, if I’ll only be obligated to worship you part-time.
We should note that Jesus doesn’t speak of money or wealth or mammon or property or even power when he replies to this temptation: He speaks of love and he speaks of God.
You shall love the Lord your God and worship him only.
Worship is the loving response to the God of love. Worship is the big AMEN to that love, to that God. Worship is a way of life, not a Sunday ritual. And when worship is a way of life, we are centered on God and not on THINGS and not on SELF.
During this worship series on Navigating the Wilderness I have been juxtaposing Old Testament scripture with New, comparing what prompts us to enter the wilderness (transgression, expulsion, fear) from what prompts Jesus to do the same. The Holy Spirit DROVE Jesus into the wilderness in order to prepare him for his ministry, and had Jesus NOT obeyed the will of God and gone faithfully into the wilderness, he would have ended up in the same kind of wilderness that we so often find ourselves in, a wilderness of the soul, the place we abide when our will and actions oppose the will of God, or when we are unaware of God, or when our faith in God falters. Today I offer some encouragement in the story of Jacob’s entry into the wilderness, namely that God redeems us in the wilderness in spite of ourselves!
The name ‘Jacob’ literally means ‘to supplant,’ ‘to interfere with,’ ‘to thwart,’ ‘to assail insidiously.’ Ancient folklore celebrated Jacob as a clever trickster, kind of like Br’er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories. And Jacob was, from the time of his birth, trying to gain things that didn’t belong to him; he exited his mother’s womb clutching the heel of his slightly older brother Esau who, on account of his primacy, was entitled to a double share of his father’s estate as well as the authority that comes with being the leader of his tribe. And with a little help from his mom, Jacob ends gaining both the birthright and the blessing that really belonged to his older brother Esau, which did not sit well with Esau. And though by modern standards the story is a bit absurd (why couldn’t Isaac simply take back the blessing that he mistakenly gave to the cunning Jacob?), we must remember that customs and rituals were often sacred, and therefore could not be tweaked to meet sensibilities. Once a person was blessed he couldn’t be un-blessed. And the loss of his father’s blessing left Esau enraged.
And we should remember that Esau is described as the outdoorsman, the hunter; Jacob on the other hand seems like a homebody, so when Esau starts talking about killing his brother Jacob, that threat would be taken seriously. And so Jacob flees the wrath of his brother, leaving his family and going to stay with his uncle until things cool down.
And what may surprise you is that nowhere in Jacob’s life story has God been even mentioned. There’s no mention of God speaking to Jacob or of Jacob bringing any offering to God. God is not a part of Jacob’s life at this time. Even as Jacob trots off into the wilderness to escape his brother, there is no mention of him crying out to God or praying to God for protection.
But God nonetheless comes to Jacob by way of a dream at Bethel. And that is incredibly good news for you and me. God comes to us even when we don’t ask him to, and even when we don’t ‘deserve’ it.
Jacob certainly had reason to call out to God, to plead with God for protection. But Jacob acted as anyone who doesn’t believe in God or doesn’t trust in God: he tried to manage by himself, out in the wilderness alone, away from shelter and safety. Maybe it was a man-thing. Even though Jacob must have been afraid, he chose to handle the situation all by himself. Perhaps he didn’t believe in God; perhaps he didn’t believe that God would have anything to do with someone as deceitful and greedy as Jacob.
But God comes to Jacob anyway, unsolicited. And God tells Jacob what he desperately needed to hear:
“…I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…” (Gen 28:15)
And in return for this and other promises from God, Jacob negotiates with God:
“If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go…then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.” (Gen 28:20-22)
What a bargain! God protects Jacob and gives him everything he needs, and Jacob gives God ten percent. I suppose God found this whole arrangement very amusing.
But we negotiate with God in the same way Jacob did; we set expectations of God and agree to give a portion of what we call ‘ours’ to God on the condition that God meets our expectations. We take our life for granted and keep expecting more – long life, good health, prosperity, good neighbors, safety, fine food at affordable prices. Of course there are people who suffer great hardships in life, more than I’ve ever suffered or would care to think about. And such suffering may naturally lead a person to question God’s love and care. But I believe that in the midst of our worst suffering we may come closest to God’s presence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Only in the darkness can your you see the stars,”[i]
It may have been a darkness in Jacob’s situation that led to his dream of the angels ascending and descending, and God assuring him of his presence and protection in his wilderness.
And by extension the understanding that God doesn’t rescue us because we deserve it; God rescues us because he loves us. All of us, including the Jacobs who lie and cheat and deceive in order to gain wealth, who convince themselves that 10% or 5% or 3% is a fair amount to offer God in return for his presence, even though that presence is eternal and costs us nothing.
Jesus tells the devil, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” To serve him only means to withhold NOTHING from God, to see everything that you have as a gift from God that should be offered back to God without reservation. Because when we fully offer ourselves to God, we experience the true presence of God, and that presence is eternal. You can’t buy that presence, but you can’t lose it either. You can only ignore it.
And whatever wilderness you may be experiencing in your life, the wilderness that comes with the loss of a loved one, or health issues, or financial woes, or stress related to your job, God is the one who helps you navigate that wilderness and eventually lead you to the Promised Land.
[i] “Loving Your Enemies,” delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (December 25, 1957).