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As most of you know, I officiate at weddings. A LOT of weddings. And it is delightful. This was something I never imagined as part of my retirement, because when I went to seminary, there was no such thing as a destination wedding. People got married in the bride's church. That was all there was to it. No discussion. Done. But about twenty years ago, this thing about DESTINATION WEDDINGS began to take off, and when folks decided to get married, the decision was not just a matter of WHEN, but WHERE. And this beautiful area being what it is, the attraction of our beaches and country club lawns has taken on a life of its own. So, when Christie and I came back to the island, one of the first questions I was asked was "Can you do weddings?" Well, yes. I haven't forgotten how. And it has been a treat for me to be involved - I get to spend time with lovely people fropm all over the world on one of the happiest days of their lives. What's not to like?
Well, I am about to tell you what's not to like. This is the story of a wedding with which I had nothing to do. Thank goodness! You may well already know the story. Most certainly, ancient Israel did. They knew it by heart.
I will get to that in a minute, but first, an old story in preparation. A classic car lover was perusing the classifieds and saw an ad that seemed impossible to believe. A 1966 candy-apple red Corvette, a dream car, and offered for $100. What? $100...for a classic? No way, José. Was it a wreck? Or maybe the price was a misprint. Still, he had to find out, so he called. A woman answered the phone and assured him that the car was in excellent shape and that there was no mistake about the price. He dashed over.
To his delight the car proved to be everything the woman reported it to be. Gorgeous! Of course he told her that he would take it. $100. But his conscience gnawed at him as he wrote the check. "Ma'am, I have to tell you that this car is worth far more than $100. You have every right to get a much high price."
"Oh, I know that," she replied, "but you see my husband has left me and run off with his floozy secretary. He said he didn't want anything from our marriage - I could keep everything but the Corvette. He wanted me to sell that and send him the money. Which is precisely what I am doing. $100."
Ah, justice. In a way, that is probably what came to mind to those ancients who listened to the story of Jacob. The story is hilarious. It lends itself to incredibly entertaining theatre. I envision it being presented by the Capernaum Community Players to appreciative audiences summer after summer after summer.
As the folks take their seats, they already know the story. After all, it is their version of 1776. This is the tale of the birth of their nation, one they have known since they first understood the mother tongue - Hebrew. This is their equivalent of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, Ben Franklin flying his kite, King George, III, and the Declaration of Independence. They KNOW the story. But it is so much fun, they are content to have it told again and again.
Now, the lights are dimmed and the curtain goes up. The scene is a desert pasture where several shepherds are lazily grazing their flocks. Center stage is a well where the sheep will quench their thirst. A large stone covers that well to prevent any one shepherd from taking more than his share of the precious water.
Suddenly, from stage left enters a handsome young stranger. The audience already knows who he is - Jacob - and why he is there - he is on a journey from his father Isaac's place in Canaan to this land, Paddan-Aram, the ancestral home in northern Mesopotamia, in search of a wife - got to keep it in the family, says Dad. His destination is the home of his mother Rebekah's brother - his Uncle Laban. He greets the shepherds: "Yo, Bro's. Wha's-sup?" (Or the ancient Hebrew equivalent thereof.)
They reply in unison, "Wha's-sup???" The audience in the theatre laughs. After all, this IS a comedy.
Jacob continues. "Where are you from?"
They reply, "Haran."
"Haran," Jacob answers. "Do you know Laban, Nahor's grandson?"
"Yes, we know him."
How about that! It's a small world after all. "Is Laban well?"
"Jes' fine. As a matter of fact, here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep." And on cue, from stage right, in comes the best looking shepherdess anyone has ever seen. A perfect TEN! Jacob's heart turned to mush - he was as smitten as smitten could be.
Now what? What can he do to impress her? "Hey everybody, it's hot as blazes out here; isn't it time to water the sheep?"
The shepherds reply, "Well, not really. You see, around here we wait till all the flocks have gathered, then we remove the stone from the well together."
"Uh-huh." No indication as the whether they move the stone together because it is so heavy or whether this is simply common courtesy in these parts. No matter, because now the beautiful Rachel is here with her sheep, so Jacob does his best Clark Kent impression, walks up to the well, removes the stone single-handed, then with a flourish, invites the new love of his life to begin watering her flock.
She smiles demurely. He smiles back, flashing his Dudley Doright pearly whites, then with a flourish reaches out, takes her in his arms, and lays a lip-lock on her that would have made Cecil B. deMille proud. The audience cheers as the curtain comes down. Fifteen minute intermission as they head to the lobby for RC's and Moonpies (These are SOUTHERN Israelites).
Now the lights dim again as the audience reclaims their seats. The curtain goes up and we find ourselves at the entrance to Laban's tent. Jacob and his uncle are talking. The young man has already done the ritual catch-up on family affairs - sister Rebekah is fine, brother-in-law Isaac is not so well. Nothing much is said about nephew Esau, but the audience knows that story anyway. Laban tells young Jacob that he is more than welcome in this household.
Now, we get to the nitty-gritty. Jacob wants Rachel. He knows there is a bride-price to be paid, so he offers seven years of labor in exchange for her hand (and everything attached to the hand, as well, of course). Whoa. Such a deal. This is like the $100 Corvette to Laban. A most generous offer, so he quickly agrees.
Now the orchestra plays an interlude as the Jacob and the rest of the players scurry around the stage representing the passing of seven years. But, as the ancient story goes, those seven years "seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her." Ahhh.
The final notes of the interlude are sounded and we see Jacob talking to Laban. Seven years are up. "Uncle, a deal's a deal. I am READY for my wife."
"That's fine. But we've got to do this right. After all, a big wedding is every little girl's dream, and we don't want to disappoint her do we?"
"No." More music as players hustle about getting announcements sent out, neighbors invited, food and drink prepared, all made ready for a week-long feast.
Now the big day. The bride and groom are both bathed, anointed with oil and perfume, and dressed in special clothes (just like today). Throughout the ceremony the bride remains veiled. The bride is accompanied by bridesmaids and the groom by his attendants as well, the chief of whom, called the friend of the bridegroom, acts as Best Man. The public ceremonies begin with Jacob and his companions processing to Rachel's home. There are the obligatory greetings, giving and receiving presents, a few drinks (which poor Jacob downs with a bit more gusto than is prudent). From there they move to the groom's tent in a lively processional dance where a meal is served prior to which the marriage contract would be read out and a public declaration made by the groom: "She is my wife and I am her husband from this day and forever." No, the bride does not have to say anything; she really has no say in any of this anyway - she does what she is told (similar to the FATHER of the bride in our day). Then all the guests toast the couple with a blessing, and the party continues. The evening concludes with the groom symbolically wrapping his cloak around his veiled bride and, escorted by the parents and bridal attendants, he leads her to the specially prepared marriage chamber where normally the veil is removed and the marriage consummated.(1)
The lights in the theatre are dimmed, the stage hands unfurl the scrim that displays the moon and twinkling stars, and the orchestra softly plays as the audience awaits the surprise they know is coming. No one explains how Jacob could make the mistake the audience knows he is making - probably a combination of intoxication and anticipation. Under such circumstances, the male of the species, we come to learn, does not always think with his brain.
Suddenly, as the lights come up indicating the arrival of the dawn, the theatre-goers hear a mighty "AAAUURRGGH" - a blood-curdling scream coming from within the marriage chamber. Jacob comes rushing out, looking right and left, then standing center stage, he yells again: "AAAUURRGGH."
The audience knows what he is screaming about. Last night, the marriage that he consummated was not with his beloved Rachel, but rather her older sister, Leah. Hers was not the face that launched a thousand ships but instead the face that would stop a clock. Jacob is understandably displeased. He has been hoodwinked (or veil-winked, as the case happens to be).
Now the audience settles in with some satisfaction, because here is where the poetic justice comes in. They remember the details of the Jacob story - how he and his twin brother Esau had competed from the day they were born, how Esau (the older of the two) was deprived of his father's blessing when Jacob misled Dad into thinking he was the one who should receive it. Now the deceiver has been deceived; the trickster has been tricked. The $100 Corvette.
Jacob comes up to Laban who has just peered out from his tent. Our hero sputters, "Uncle, Laban, what have you done? Seven years I have worked for you...FOR RACHEL!!! Now you give me Leah? Why?"
Laban responds weakly, "It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one." Strange he forgot to mention that seven years before when he made the initial agreement. "Finish Leah's bridal week," said her father, "then we will give you the Rachel also."
Then Laban adds, "...in return for another seven years of work." Which we know Jacob gives, but about which it is NOT said, the time felt like "only a few days because of his love for her."
The final scene of this particular production has the wedding scene recreated. Jacob is about to take his second wife in a week when the curtain comes down as the orchestra plays a patriotic medley while the off-stage announcer reads off the name's of the children who would be born to Jacob and his two wives (plus their personal handmaids) - familiar names, because these are the names of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. It would be nice if the announcer could conclude with, "And they all lived happily ever after," but everyone knows how the story goes. This would be the Battle of the Brides, just one more episode in the national version of Family Feud. One of the funnier ones, to be sure, but feuding and fighting had characterized the nation's history from the beginning.
No doubt the audience thought about the story as they made their way home, as we all do when we leave a good show. But, as the Israelite version of 1776, it would hardly have made them swell with national pride. In fact, if the story were not so familiar to them that they might be intellectually "inoculated" to its sordid details, they would probably be downright embarrassed that this was the birth of their nation.
Actually, there is a wonderful bit of ultimate truth in this tragicomic story, and it is this: perhaps, as the aphorism has it, we cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but God can. God can work with lovable charlatans like Jacob and do something good; God can work with scoundrels like Laban and do something good; God can work with beautiful people like Rachel and do something good; God can work with the not-so-beautiful people like Leah and do something good. God can work with harmonious families and do something good; God can work with dysfunctional families and do something good. God does not work like the Deus ex Machina of the Greek stage, but is intimately involved in the day to day struggle.
The Apostle Paul came to learn that in his own life and work. Near the end of his ministry, he wrote to the believers in Rome. He reflected on the frustrations that he and they and everyone of us have - we attempt to bring them to God in prayer, but find ourselves so bound up that we cannot communicate with anything but "groans that words cannot express." Much the way that an ancient Leah must have felt when Jacob left her bed in a fury; how could she ever put into words the pain and hurt she must have felt? But Paul insists that those groans, the sighs, the tears, the body language is communicated - God understands choreography. Then God takes all those circumstances, the highs as well as the lows, and molds them. In Paul's words, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
A few weeks ago, I was conducting a continuing education event for our Stephen Ministers from St. Andrew and I told them a story of a Sunday School teacher who was telling another of those great old Genesis' stories, the tale of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac. With great drama, she made the narrative come alive - the three-day journey to Mt. Moriah, the pain of a father about to lose his boy, the child-like trust of a son, the hard stones of the altar to which the lad was lashed, the flash of the knife poised to strike. Suddenly a little girl became so nervous she shouted, "Oh, please, stop - the story is terrible," and she began to cry.
Laughingly and with wonderful confidence, another child exclaimed, "Oh, Mary, don't be silly. This is one of God's stories and they always come out right."(2) I say Amen!
So, I think would St. Paul. As he says at the stirring conclusion of Romans, chapter 8, "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
That is good news. To Christians in the west whose lives have been so disrupted by the massive forest fires, the good news is that the conflagrations cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To Christians whose lives have been thrown into disarray because of the economy that continues to falter for the Middle Class, that cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To Christians whose families are separated for a time because of the wars our nation waged seemingly without end, know that NOTHING can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To you and me living comfortably in the Lowcountry but sometimes faced with moments of quiet desperation, the good news is that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A wedding gone wild. Jacob, Rachel, Leah - what a bunch! But what a lesson! If God can use them for good, God can even use you...and you and you and you and you...and me. Wow! Be open to it. And remember, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And that is the best news you will ever hear.
1. Wedding details from Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogin, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 795
2. G. Ray Jordan, Beyond Despair, (New York: MacMillan, 1955), p. 163