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Jacob's Lesson on Aging Well

Sermon #315 St. Martin’s #71 (Riverway) 8/13/23

Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.

This is the account of Jacob’s family line.

Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

Genesis 37:1-11


One thing that has occurred to me through this sermon series, that I hadn’t considered before, is what a long, hard life Jacob lived. He spent some of his life on the run with a death threat from his brother looming over him. He worked 14 years of hard labor in his Uncle Laban’s fields.

By the time we see him in Genesis 37, just five chapters from where we were last week, it is apparent that Jacob is different. All those years have finally caught up to him.

In the chapters that bridged last week to where we are today, Jacob has become quieter and more passive. In many ways, he is becoming like his father Isaac; life seems to be happening to him rather than him taking destiny into his own hands.

Time has passed on and things have changed. He is not the young buck that he used to be, and the years are finally weighing on him more than ever.

Even the biblical writers are aware of this by chapter 37. They have given us readers a subtle indication that the story is now moving away from Jacob and will focus on his sons, Joseph, in particular.

You see, we’ve spared you this morning because Genesis 36 is a long list of names. Though us modern readers of the Bible do not care “who begat who,” or that the sons of Dishon were Hemdan, Eshban, Ithran, and Cheran.

But the authors of Genesis always put genealogies in the story when they were transitioning from one major character to another. And so, lists of names in the Bible (as useless as they may seem) actually indicate to us that something big is about to change.

We can find them at the hinge moment when we move Adam to Noah, Noah to Abraham. Think about even in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy, meaning, God was about to do a new thing in Israel’s story.

Anytime you see a list of names you should actually get excited.

And so, Genesis 37 is on the other side of a long genealogy, and for a series on Jacob, it may seem like a strange place to end. Heck, Jacob is barely mentioned in our reading. The focus has already moved to Joseph.

But we get to see this softer side of the patriarch; age will do that after all. Our passage ends by saying, “[Joseph’s] brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.”

He’s going to sit with Joseph’s dream and chew on it for a while. He’s not going to deny it outright; he’s not going to do much with it at all right now. He’s going to let it play out a little longer.

Falling Upwards

Thinking about Jacob in this latter part of his life reminded me of a book I read years ago. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, wrote a book called, Falling Upwards, and it’s all about aging well. My youth minister in high school gave me this book and said, “You’re an old soul, you’ll probably like it.”

Rohr says there are at least two major tasks in life. The first task is to build a strong container or identity for one’s life. In creating this container, we are answering some central questions like: What makes me significant? How can I support myself? And who will go with me?

These questions are forcing us to concentrate on our identity, security, and relationships (friendships and romance). These questions don’t just preoccupy us during this season of life; they completely consume us (pgs. 1, 4, 8).

We have to find out what we are about; what we believe and what we’re passionate about in life. These decisions will shape us in some crucial ways, and create a path for the rest of our life.

We’ve got to create this structure for us to thrive and flourish, to feel safe and supported. We cannot go further in life until we resolve some of these fundamental questions.

But we are mistaken if we think answering these questions is the goal of our life. Building the container is not an end in itself, but exists for the sake of a deeper and fuller life (pg. 1).

The task of the second half of life is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. Up to this point, everything has been mere preparation. “The first half of life is writing the text and the second half is writing the commentary on that text,” as Rohr says (143).

This is where the real work of life is done. The structure has been built, the container is set, and the frantic race hither and yon to find out who you are and what you believe slows down, and it becomes more of an internal journey. This adventure is not measured in miles but in the depths of one’s soul.

And quite surprisingly, it is only after experiencing some disappointments and failures that we have the ability to reflect on how we’ve gone about building our container and what we’re going to put in it.

If we’ve only had success in life, we would have little need to reflect. We should keep doing whatever we’re doing and reap the rewards. That requires no learning and no real growth.

But setbacks, even suffering, can give us a new perspective on the identity we’ve been endlessly building over our first half of life.

But “the way up,” in the Bible mysteriously appears to be the path downward. The longer we are on this journey the more we become comfortable with contradictions and ambiguity.

We realize the journey may be more important than the grand destination we’ve spent all our time trying to get to. Detours may not be a nuisance, but the essence of whatever we’re supposed to discover.

Because of these epiphanies over our life, we’re patient enough to know that easy answers to hard questions don’t exist—and those aren’t really fun anyway. Through trial and error, we’ve realized that we can do nothing on our own, rather we must surround ourselves with a community of support and love. We need each other, but we sometimes need to learn that the hard way.

By falling upward, we have gained some sense, and probably some wisdom.

And so, I think the Genesis-37-Jacob is a man who is well into his second half of life. It does appear Jacob’s wrestling match with God changed him. He was given a new name, but he also limped out of the darkness of that valley into the light. God had given him his identity, Israel, the One who struggled with God and lived. And incorporated into his identity is that nagging limp and his checkered past. It’s not whitewashed from his story—it is the core it.

He's had a hard life, but when we meet him in this chapter, he may not so much be fading out of the Genesis story, as he has fallen upward and onward from the story; shifting the focus to his sons.

The limelight is gone, but a new season of life offers him a great opportunity.

Transformation to Flourishing

When it comes to Jacob’s bumpy road to obedience we are ending with the title “From Transformation to Flourishing.” But this is not the kind of flourishing that we typically have in mind.

“Flourishing” for Jacob does not mean, “And he lived happily ever after.” Right after our passage, his sons will lie to him, saying his beloved Joseph was killed when they actually sold him into slavery. There is more pain ahead for this poor man.

But flourishing for Jacob (and for us) entails coming to a point where we can trust God, even when the circumstances look hopeless. It means you’ve seen enough in your life to know that whatever is going on cannot—and will not—sink the ship of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

Whatever comes our way is not too big for God, and just because misfortune or pain has appeared in our life doesn’t mean we are forsaken. That’s a panic button many people press when they’re still building the container because it means it’ll delay their container's completion, or the container will not look the way they planned. It is a first-half of life crisis.

Second half of life wisdom invites us to trust that there is a bigger picture, a larger story going on, than just what is happening in our particular life. It’s called perspective, but when God is involved, it’s also called trust.

And for us, that trust looks a lot like faith. Faith that singleness right now doesn’t equate to loneliness forever. Faith that one fight (or one tough season in your marriage or relationship) does not mean it’s time to give up on your love.

Faith that the rejection from a job or promotion doesn’t mean you are worthless. Faith that an affliction, mentally or physically, doesn’t mean a lifetime of misery.

And for those who are younger, it means, faith that God is in it for the long haul. He can handle your questions, your doubts, and your daily struggles. He’s got you. He’s put his name on you.

Flourishing, in this way looks like learning to fall in the direction of God. Because what this sermon series has taught me (and maybe taught you as well) is that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God too.

He was faithful to them, and surely he has been (and will continue to be) faithful to us.

11th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 14. Year A. Gen. 37:1-11. Richard Rohr: Falling Upwards. Photo by Om Prakash Sethia on Unsplash.

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