Dr. Chris White June 29th, 2014
Because I was an outsider with limited interest in college basketball, I was surprised as a new Kentuckian by the unique DNA of University of Kentucky basketball fans. I am still struck by it. It’s not just zeal, mind you. What I find so interesting is the inability of UK to perceive a coming loss. UK fans really do expect their team to win every game. And with rare excep-tions, UK fans are always surprised by their team’s failure to win. That is unique. Or so I thought. I think we are all like this in our lives: we are always surprised by personal failure. I don’t mean here that we expect to win and own every moment or ace every test before us. I mean that we rarely ever see or predict personal, moral failures. We never see ourselves breaking promises, breaking commitments, or breaking another’s trust. We seem more than able to picture ourselves being faithful, but we rarely anticipate where we are going to fail. But we do fail—God, ourselves, and others. And it is disheartening to look out from the wreckage on what we’ve lost.
I would like to spend the next few weeks on one question: “Why do we fail?” We’ll begin this morning with the story of Jacob, the twin son of Isaac, son of Abraham. He consumes a great deal of print in Genesis, and with good reason. Read with me from Genesis 25:19-34.
This is a story of providence as well as personal failure. We see here a move by God to answer a prayer for a child, and we also see a warning sign: the older will serve the younger. This is cryptic language in the ancient world, because the eldest son always replaced the father as the lord of the home at the father’s death. As we’ll later see, it was expected that the eldest son also received a binding blessing from God as a birthright. To be the eldest was to win the lottery, and so the youngest could only hope to get a portion what was left over. Unless, of course, you found a way to get the winning ticket from the eldest brother. This is what Jacob did. As we see in verses 29-34, the conditions were perfect for deception: Esau hunts, Jacob cooks; Esau is famished, Jacob has a meal ready; Esau is impulsive, Jacob is patient; Esau thinks little of his birthright, Jacob can only think of the birthright; Esau will sell his birthright for a meal, Jacob will trade a meal for a birthright. Esau appears to be a bumbling, bungling oaf who despises a great gift. But Jacob may be worse. He is a young man willing to buy a birthright. The birthright came by birth, and it was not for sale. It is one thing to despise your birthright and sell it, but it is another thing to despise your brother and family and buy what was not for sale.
Nowhere are we told that the deception of Jacob was honorable. Indeed, while God’s word about the older serving the younger is true, it only comes about by the failure of Isaac’s sons. And for our purposes today it is the failure of Jacob. What went wrong? Jacob is presented as grasping the heel of his brother even at birth. When an opportunity to overtake the brother finally arises, Jacob takes it. If you were not born with the winning lottery ticket, maybe you stoop to stealing it. Jacob’s act is theft, pure and simple. He does one day leave with the birthright and the blessing from his father, but the ownership of these things is a sign of his failure. It is the story of a man who would not trust the God of his father. In fact, we never see Jacob seeking God or even considering God in the enormous issues of birthright and family. Instead, he’s slinking off with the lottery ticket in order to avoid his brother’s wrath.
On a very practical level, the failure of Jacob was to dismiss his place as a second-born, as if God could not help the second-born of the world. He did not seem to believe that one could be second-born and still be fully in God’s will and providential placement. If you believe that the only wonderful life to be lived in this world is waiting for you as a firstborn, then you probably burn every bridge to become first. If you believe that God and blessing is only waiting for you with firstborn, first world, or first finisher status, then you do whatever it takes to be first. In a sense, Jacob and all second-born like him have one confession: “The Lord is not in this place and I know it.”
I give you that line because of what is to follow in Genesis 28:10-22. This is one of the truly great portions of the Bible. It is a turning point for Jacob, the first real sign of his father’s God making himself known to him. Like any of us today, a moment’s presence from God is unlike a moment anywhere else. Jacob is introduced to the larger story flowing through his veins and heart. But I want to focus on the obvious. He laid down that night presuming he was merely on soil and rock. The dream revealed that he was in the presence of God. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” There was no literal house or gate, and the desert did not look so awesome when the heat kicked in. But when God is obvious, the place you are standing feels awesome, like a house of God and a gate to heaven. He had far more on his side as a second-born in his home than as a thieving little brother on the run, but here he experienced God. This place was different. Less than home, but more bountiful.
Maybe we fail because we do not take into consideration the deep presence of God in our second-born places. Maybe we look out with disappointment on all that is second-born: second-hand clothes and cars and houses, second-place finishes, second-class travel, second-guessing decisions, second string athlete, second-rate possessions, or the second mortgage needed to get the kids through college. It is not so hard to stand up as Christians and speak of being “blessed” when the blessings of the firstborn in the first world have landed in our laps. Of course we can say, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” But ANYONE can say that. Jacob can say that with Esau’s birthright, too. The real question is this: Can you find God in your second-born places and people and hardships? Do you have to have firstborn privileges to experience God?
I think we experience personal failures when we do not see God in and through our second place places and people. Failure is looming when the only “real” life is lurking in the weeds of the firsts. Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:22, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” “First” among our peers is not our master. That allegiance is reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ, who, in fact, warns us against wanting a firstborn privilege. In Mark 10:44 we read, “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” This is a call to accept that God is fully in the second-born places of your life. This is to accept that Jesus was more than comfortable serving His Father washing feet and joining tax collectors at tables. Jesus did not seem to believe that God was waiting for him in firstborn privileges.
What about your place? Could you envision God’s will for you in all the places you are NOT first? Is it possible that “the presence of the Lord is in this place”? Your place?