Take, for instance, God’s decision to choose Jacob to be the one through whom Israel would become blessed as a people. Didn’t God do some background-checking first? Jacob was a hustler from the very beginning, a liar, a cheat, a wheeler-dealer. Even his name “Jacob” means “usurper.” He was not beyond tricking his twin brother, his feeble and aging father, or his equally shrewd father-in-law. He used people to get what he wanted, no matter at whose expense. He played favorites with both his wives and his children. When a reunion with his brother was anticipated after years of estrangement, Jacob sent those wives and children (and lots of his other possessions) ahead of him – whether as a peace-offering or as an expendable buffer, I’ve never been exactly sure.
What I’m sure of is that God, for reasons known only to God, saw something in Jacob that has never been immediately apparent to me. In that heel-grabbing, self-promoting Jacob, where I see little more than a class-A jerk, God saw someone who was worthy, and blessed, and able to convey that blessing to others. Who would have guessed?
The scriptures are bursting with examples of God’s ability to see beyond the surface – of people, of events, of situations – to a greater, deeper, better, truer truth beyond. We’ve just heard two such passages this morning; in both of them we find abundant evidence of God’s ability to see more than meets the eye…or at least more than usually meets our eyes.
God’s counter-intuitive perspective on Jacob, found in Genesis chapter 32, certainly had precedent. Jacob’s grandfather Abram and his wife Sarai, you may remember from way back in chapter 12, were contentedly settled in Ur, both well past their dancing days. Any of us might have seen them as candidates for the nursing home. But God saw in them the possibility of children, and travel, and adventure. No wonder they laughed.
But they took a risk on trusting what God saw in them. And because of that trust, after many miles and adventures – surprise, surprise: they had a son and named him “Laughter,” Isaac.
It was the twin sons of Laughter, slick Jacob and the rougher Esau, whose story forms the background to the passage we heard from Genesis, as we heard earlier. After Jacob had tricked Esau out of his blessing as first-born, Jacob fled, fearing his brother’s wrath. Over the next 20 years, Jacob amassed considerable wealth while working for his father-in-law, Laban. But he and Laban also got into conflict over what property rightfully belonged to whom, and Jacob fled from Laban, too, taking his considerable wealth with him. He sent word to Esau that he was coming “home” having succeeded in many material ways, and in hopes that Esau would receive him with favor. Jacob’s messengers returned saying that Esau had succeeded considerably as well, and was on his way with 400 men. Jacob trembled in his sandals, for a minute, and then got to work calculating how he could make this encounter work to his benefit. So he sent two waves of fortune over the Jabbok River to meet Esau first, thinking Esau’s wrath might be pacified by the gifts. It was while Jacob slept alone by the Jabbok¸ waiting for who-knew-what the next morning, that he engaged in the strangest wrestling match of all time.
I do not get what God saw in Jacob, and why God chose him for blessing, but that’s what happened there by the Jabbok River. The blessing, of course, didn’t look like a blessing at that moment, either: it looked like hand-to-hand combat, a relentless struggle, a pulled muscle, and a sore leg, and a limp. But because God saw possibilities in Jacob that elude most of us, a lot of other things about that encounter ended up looking different than they otherwise might have as well:
What looked for all the world like a set up for an ambush and an all-out slaughter turned into a heartfelt reunion between estranged brothers.
And all those potential dead-ends became grace-filled realities because God saw beyond the surface. In the one whom everyone else knew as Jacob the hustler, God saw Israel who would put his whole self into the struggle with God, and wouldn’t let go.
We find another experience of such “double vision” in the gospel passage from Matthew. After hearing the horrible news of John the Baptist’s death, Jesus tried to find some quiet time alone in a deserted place. But when word got out about Jesus’ intentions, people followed him. The deserted place to which he had retreated quickly became a crowded place to which others advanced, and Jesus’ down-time turned into an open-air triage unit as he healed the sick.
The disciples looked around at this situation and this is what met their eyes: They saw themselves in an out-of-the-way wilderness area with no market, no fruit trees, no places of hospitality, no hearths for cooking, no easy access to civilization. They saw thousands of clamoring, hungry, needy people looking for answers they didn’t have. They saw potential rioting and disaster. They saw themselves, empty-handed and possibly the targets of violence. They saw a couple of dried fish and a few meager loaves of bread, nothing really, in the face of such hunger. They didn’t see how they could get out of this mess.
But Jesus looked around and this is was the vision before him: He saw a people in the wilderness where, as had been the case so many times before, there was wide-open opportunity for God’s providence to be revealed. Where the disciples saw nothing more than a ravenous crowd, Jesus saw people willing to express their hunger, and to wait with him in their emptiness. The disciples looked down on the crowds and saw grumbling tummies; Jesus looked up to heaven and saw gracious generosity. The disciples saw defeat; Jesus saw an opportunity for blessing. When the disciples rolled their eyes and grudgingly handed over their skimpy rations of bread and fish, Jesus’ eyes lit up at the possibilities before them.
But of all the things Jesus saw that eluded the disciples’ vision, this was the real kicker: Jesus saw something in them, in the disciples themselves.
This is how Matthew tells the story. At the end of that long, hot, crowded day the disciples came to Jesus to complain. “This is a deserted place, and it’s late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” they whined. But Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Then Jesus took, and blessed, and broke the bread they had scrounged up, and gave the food back to the disciples, and the disciples gave it to the crowds.
The disciples saw themselves in that moment as hungry, tapped-out, foot-sore, unemployed nobodies, with no resources either material or spiritual that could be useful in that situation of need.
Jesus saw them as the perfect people to be generous servants of God’s surprisingly abundant grace. And so they were.
What do you see when you look around at the world, at your circumstances, at the people around you, at yourself? What looks like a dead end, an empty cupboard, a certain defeat?
Look around. Look in a mirror. What do you see? There are gifts galore within this body, to be sure, but there are wounds as well, both those we bear and those we have inflicted on others. Like our Biblical ancestors, we are just as flawed, fickle, faithless, sharp-tongued, dull-witted, selfish, simpering, whiny, fearful, arrogant, clueless, and short-sighted as they were, and sometimes all we tend to see are our shortcomings. Sometimes we engage in those all-night wrestling matches with God, but sometimes we just throw in the towel, trusting our assumption of defeat rather than holding on to God’s vision of blessing.
And yet God sees in us, each of us and all, beloved children who are worthy, and blessed, and able to convey that blessing to others. Even having done the complete background check, God still chooses us – us! – as the perfect people to be the bearers of God’s grace.
But here’s the good news: God gets us. Completely. Not just what we look like on the surface, but who we are on the inside. And more than that, God sees who we are made to be in our completion: shining, reconciled, true, fearless, generous stewards of God’s abundance, who aren’t ashamed of that slight limp in our step.
If God, for reasons known only to God, could see in Sarah’s future not a nursing home but a nursing mother…if God could see in Jacob not just a two-bit hustler but a tenacious sparring partner whose wounds would serve as blessing…if God could look through Jesus and see in the clueless disciples the possibility of courageous apostles…then what do you think God might see in us?
And if the arthritic Sarah could give birth to Laughter…if estranged brothers could be happily reunited…if the empty-handed disciples could feed a multitude with just a little lunch…then imagine, just imagine what might be possible when we trust God’s blessed vision for us…